What is Australia Day really about?



What is Australia Day all about?  Like many people, I am increasingly disturbed that our national holiday is becoming more of a drunken orgy for flag-waving rednecks than an opportunity for Australians to appreciate our national story in all its complexity.  In raising a number of questions about Australia Day, I challenge you to think more deeply about the Australian national story and what it means to be an Australian.

I do this with a view to countering the xenophobic interpretation of Australia Day.  Frothing-at-the-mouth patriotism based on xenophobia frees its adherents from the obligations of thinking for themselves and empathising with other human beings.  Is it a positive that there is a collection of stupid and hateful people in our community?  Whose interests does it serve to promote such views?

We often here the phrase “un-Australian” thrown around.  The idea that one could be “un-Australian” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because there is no obvious template that defines what it means to be Australian.  So what then does it mean to be Australian?  Or is the idea that there is one prototypical Australian identity a fool’s errand, promoted by people looking to demonise people who are different from themselves in some way?

Is Australia really the best country in the world, or is that the kind of statement one would expect from people who’ve never left the country and have no basis for comparison?  As someone with extensive travel experience, I believe certain parts of Australia are great places to live, but I do not shy away from our country’s problems as if acknowledging our darker side would be a fatal wound to the national character.

January 26th commemorates the day that Captain Arthur Phillip established a panopticon in Port Jackson to house convicts, the detritus of the demise of British feudalism.  The industrial revolution and the enclosuremovement forced masses of peasants off the land into the slums of Britain’s burgeoning industrial cities, with little means of subsistence outside of crime and vice.  Indeed there is much admire about the theme of redemption in the early Australian story, in the refuse of British society finding new opportunity in New South Wales.  There have been many great achievements in the moulding of the Australian federation from six separate British colonies, into the society that we inhabit today.

Yet the convicts and settlers of the First Fleet were not the only people here in 1788.  For indigenous Australians, 26th January 1788 marked the beginning of an unfolding disaster as successive indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their land, exterminated by settlers, killed by European diseases for which they had no immunity and over time became ever more politically marginalised as defeated peoples.  Is it self-indulgent and insensitive of settler Australians to expect indigenous Australians to see anything positive in Australian Day?

Asking such questions often elicits a ferocious response deploring “political correctness.”  When I hear someone use the phrase “political correctness,” what I hear is the immature bleating of a person who doesn’t like being called out on their bigotry.  Indeed, the entire contest over history during the culture wars of the 1990s begs the question, are we mature enough as a society to appreciate our national story in all of its complexity?

We should be asking difficult questions on Australia Day about what precisely we are commemorating and what it means to be Australian.  Having such a frank public discussion is how a society intellectually and emotionally matures.  Have this discussion with yourself.  Have it with other people.  Come to appreciate our diverse country and our assortment of dissimilar fellow countrymen and women in all of our beautiful, ugly reality.

I also encourage you to join the discussion and share your thoughts in the comments box below.

Further Reading:

Other Australians have weighed in on this discussion more eloquently than I…

Charlie Teo, neurosurgeon – Australia Day 2012 Address: Full Speech

Mark Seymour, musician – Aussie. I love it, but leave me out of the flag-waving

Peter Chambers, blogger – Celebrate Australia Day, $3.99!

Professor Mick Dodson, 2009 Australian of the Year – Dodson wants debate on Australia Day date change


Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, has studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea, and has extensive field experience in Northeast Asia.  Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at b.habib@latrobe.edu.au.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.


One comment

  1. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for that. Apologies for the delayed response but as an expat Australian Citizen, I have – since the time of Crocodile Dundee at least – thought that celebrating the arrival of European settlers to Australia was an insult to the indigenous population. It is not like celebrating Christmas in a Muslim country (which should be allowed) – it is like reminding the vanquished of their supposedly inferior status.

    Julia Gillard was no doubt shaken by the rough-handling of her security people but she should not be surprised by the hostile reaction of indigenous people to their being reminded of the day Europeans claimed ownership of their land.

    As in Crocodile Dundee, it is undoubtedly true that people arguing over who owns the land is like fleas arguing over who owns the dog. However, if so, one group of fleas should stop reminding another group of fleas about the day they ceased to have the freedom to treat the dog in the way they chose; especially since the first group of fleas were living in harmony with nature rather than treating like a vast warehouse whose goods can be plundered without paying for them.

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