A na­tional day for all Aus­tralians.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Wes­ley Enoch

Noel Pear­son says there are three nar­ra­tives that make Aus­tralia – the story of the long­est con­tin­u­ous liv­ing cul­ture on Earth; the tale of the Bri­tish colo­nial project and the in­sti­tu­tions that have helped shaped our so­ci­ety; and the nar­ra­tive of the most suc­cess­ful multi-eth­nic, mul­ti­cul­tural na­tion on the planet.

Ev­ery time we walk the street, we see these three nar­ra­tives un­am­bigu­ously in­ter­twined. The in­flu­ence of the West­min­ster form of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, the ju­di­ciary, Indige­nous knowl­edge, his­tory, peo­ple, our land­scape, the faces of our friends and fam­i­lies, the food we eat, the lan­guage we hear and speak. These nar­ra­tives are in­escapable. But for some Aus­tralians, these nar­ra­tives seem in con­flict, an­ti­thet­i­cal to each other, and they seek a world where one dom­i­nates the oth­ers to prove a su­pe­ri­or­ity.

This bat­tle flares most sig­nif­i­cantly in the weeks lead­ing up to Jan­uary 26 – the ques­tions around who owns the date, what it means and what we do on the day that makes us Aus­tralian. We find our­selves, once again, in this time of height­ened ten­sion.

At Syd­ney Fes­ti­val in 2019 we are invit­ing res­i­dents and vis­i­tors down to Baranga­roo Re­serve to sit a vigil from dusk of Jan­uary 25 un­til dawn on the 26th. It is de­signed to serve as a rit­ual re­flec­tion on the day be­fore it all changed, to con­sider the im­pact of the ar­rival of the First Fleet; on the peo­ple, the cul­ture and the land­scape. The loss of life and the sur­vival. The vigil is an at­tempt at find­ing a process of re­mem­ber­ing.

As we ap­proach the 250th an­niver­sary of Cook’s claim­ing of this con­ti­nent for the Bri­tish Crown, it is im­por­tant to put our mod­ern Aus­tralia into the pic­ture and to use this next an­niver­sary as a tool to un­der­stand who we are now, rather than the pro­mo­tion of a sin­gle na­tional nar­ra­tive.

Aus­tralia Day dates back to 1915, with a se­ries of World War I fundrais­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, but the date then was not Jan­uary 26 – a date as di­vi­sive then as it is now – but rather July 30. Sub­se­quently, it was held on Fri­day July 28, 1916; Fri­day, July 27, 1917; and Fri­day, July 26, 1918. It was the days of cash pay pack­ets handed out on a Thurs­day, and one can as­sume Fri­days were the best days to col­lect pledges and do­na­tions. With the usual Aus­tralian prag­ma­tism, the date changed to what­ever best suited the cause.

Then with the end of the war, there was a sense that our newly trau­ma­tised in­fant na­tion needed a na­tional day, along­side our na­tional cap­i­tal, na­tional cur­rency, the be­gin­nings of our na­tional war memo­rial and other found­ing na­tional para­pher­na­lia to mark our na­tion­hood. We were over­come with im­pe­rial spirit and strong bonds to our colo­nial his­tory. Be­tween the wars, though, Jan­uary 26 was a con­tentious date for a na­tional day as it was also New South Wales’ Foun­da­tion Day.

About 1930, the oddly named Aus­tralian Na­tives’ As­so­ci­a­tion (ANA) ad­vo­cated the adop­tion of this date, but clar­i­fied that cel­e­bra­tions should be held on the clos­est Mon­day – so as to make a long week­end at the end of Jan­uary. Some records call it ANA Day – the Aus­tralian Na­tives’ As­so­ci­a­tion was open only to Aus­tralian-born white men. So, the white men in charge in our na­tional cap­i­tal and state par­lia­ments put up re­sis­tance un­til 1935. Aus­tralia Day was just three years old when the first Indige­nous protest oc­curred, with the in­sti­ga­tion of the Day of Mourn­ing in 1938 – the same year crowds gath­ered in Syd­ney for the un­pro­nounce­able sesqui­cen­te­nary of the ar­rival of the First Fleet.

On the Day of Mourn­ing, Indige­nous Aus­tralians and their sup­port­ers marked the im­pact of coloni­sa­tion, de­manded full rights as cit­i­zens and mourned the loss of life ex­pe­ri­enced in their com­mu­ni­ties. They gath­ered at the steps of Syd­ney Town Hall, which was to be the site of the in­au­gu­ral Day of Mourn­ing Congress, un­til the Syd­ney City Coun­cil re­fused their book­ing. So they marched the streets of Syd­ney to the aptly named Aus­tralia Hall in El­iz­a­beth Street. Af­ter decades of pe­ti­tions and protes­ta­tions, Jan­uary 26, 1938 was cho­sen as the most ap­pro­pri­ate date to call at­ten­tion to the Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence, to ques­tion Aus­tralian iden­tity and to shine a light on our his­tory from an Indige­nous per­spec­tive. Just a day ear­lier, on Jan­uary 25, 1938,

Prime Min­is­ter Joseph Lyons met with del­e­gates from the Day of Mourn­ing to hear their griev­ances.

But the story goes that Lyons’ pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion was in meet­ing a fa­mous young foot­baller named Doug Ni­cholls, then in his ground­break­ing play­ing ca­reer’s fi­nal year, rather than hav­ing any true in­ter­est in the cause. What­ever the truth, the fact is that on the day be­fore the 150th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of the First Fleet, the leader of the coun­try sat down to talk with

First Na­tions lead­ers.

The Day of Mourn­ing has been marked each year since. In that, Aus­tralia Day is not much older than the Indige­nous protests of its com­mem­o­ra­tion.

By 1988, the “bi­cen­te­nary”, terms such as Sur­vival Day and In­va­sion Day were in com­mon us­age. The Day of Mourn­ing con­tin­ued and the “Cel­e­bra­tion of a Na­tion” jin­gle was ev­ery­where. The Day of Mourn­ing at­tracted huge crowds to march the streets of ev­ery Aus­tralian cap­i­tal, com­mem­o­rat­ing not only the losses but also the sur­vival of First Na­tions Aus­tralians. This was also the year that the date of Aus­tralia Day was tem­po­rar­ily changed, from the tra­di­tional Mon­day, the 25th, which would have made a long week­end, to the ac­tual date of the an­niver­sary of the First Fleet’s ar­rival on Tues­day, Jan­uary 26. For most Aus­tralians, the change was fine – they took an ex­tra-long week­end. Last­ing just a year, this ex­u­ber­ant in­vest­ment in na­tional iden­tity started the ball rolling for a per­ma­nent change. By 1994, the states and ter­ri­to­ries uni­fied un­der a na­tional pub­lic hol­i­day, held on Jan­uary 26.

The Change the Date cam­paign has its roots in the Day of Mourn­ing, but has been thrown into stark fo­cus in re­cent years. Some­how, I can see the value in a long week­end at the end of sum­mer. To be forcibly re­minded of the First Fleet, though, then un­sym­pa­thet­i­cally brought into the mod­ern con­text, it starts to take on quite a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter. Who can erase the mem­ory of a mas­sive war­ship sit­ting in Cir­cu­lar Quay dur­ing Syd­ney’s Aus­tralia Day events in the past few years?

This mod­ern-day re-en­act­ment of the ar­rival of mil­i­tary might is chilling, and is not lost on all those gath­ered.

In the end, it is the lack of ac­knowl­edge­ment of Aus­tralia’s three nar­ra­tives on our na­tional day that has us all ques­tion­ing the date. Un­like the United States, which has three dates to ac­knowl­edge its foun­da­tion and his­tory, we try, un­suc­cess­fully and inar­tic­u­lately, to force ev­ery­thing into one day. Colum­bus Day, Thanks­giv­ing and In­de­pen­dence Day are al­lowed to have dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions and ri­tu­als dat­ing back as far as 500 years. In Aus­tralia, we lack the tra­di­tions, cer­e­monies and ri­tu­als that can en­hance our na­tional iden­tity dur­ing a na­tional day. The ri­tu­als we have are, ar­guably, hav­ing a bar­be­cue and a few drinks, lamb ads, jin­go­is­tic na­tion­al­ism, weird re-en­act­ments, fire­works, driv­ing around with an Aus­tralian flag hang­ing out the back win­dow, and, un­til re­cently, the Triple J Hottest 100. For the lucky few, there are nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion cer­e­monies, dur­ing which those who have re­cently ar­rived be­come part of the na­tion of Aus­tralia.

For guid­ance, I think we need to look to our other na­tional com­mem­o­ra­tion, An­zac Day. De­spite be­ing in­ter­na­tional, it is a much older and clearer ex­am­ple of how we could shape a day that tells the story of our coun­try. And how we tell these sto­ries mat­ters. On April 25, we start with a dawn ser­vice full of po­etry, mu­sic, sym­bol­ism, a minute’s si­lence, quiet re­flec­tion and a sense of the dawn of a new day; fol­lowed by a march where we pay re­spect to those who have served, con­sider the hu­man price of war and the sac­ri­fice of fam­ily mem­bers. That’s then fol­lowed by fam­ily gath­er­ings and old mates shar­ing some time to­gether to yarn, ex­change sto­ries and mem­o­ries, a trip to a pub, and a game of two-up. Over time, An­zac Day has de­vel­oped tra­di­tions and com­mem­o­ra­tions that can ac­cess great pain, show re­spect and af­ter an ap­pro­pri­ate sense of cer­e­mony, cel­e­brate life and sur­vival and peace through a party.

Change the date, don’t change the date – I am ag­nos­tic. I think a na­tional day could be a valu­able tool in the bind­ing of a na­tion, but only if it finds ways of in­clud­ing the three nar­ra­tives, as Pear­son has de­scribed them. I can imag­ine a three-stage na­tional day of the fu­ture, one that stretches from our long First Na­tions his­tory, through the nar­ra­tive of the Bri­tish ar­rival, to the waves of im­mi­grant ar­rivals and life here now. Past,

• present and fu­ture.


Syd­ney Fes­ti­val takes place from Jan­uary 9-27. See www.syd­neyfes­ti­val.org.au for more in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing fur­ther in­for­ma­tion on the vigil on Jan­uary 25.

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