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Enjoying Australia Day traditions

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Becoming Australian on Australia Day

Many migrants like to have their citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day. Ironically, Australia Day is the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of criminals in 1788. With scones, a bit of singing and handshakes all round, their initiation to Australia is decidedly more inviting that it was for the Convicts who had to put up with whips, spears and heavy leg irons.

After the citizenship ceremony is complete, perhaps the new Australians will pick up a local newspaper in the hope of reading some heart-warmig traditions that will inspire them to place their hand over their heart as citizens around the world are expected to do on their national day. If they do, they will probably discover that Australia Day is perhaps the most unique national day in the world because, rather than unite, it seems to divide Australians into different viewpoints. As Ken Boundy, former managing director of Tourism Australia,

“We must be the only country in the world that marks its national day not by celebrating its identity, but by questioning it.”

The perplexing attitudes to Australia Day is best understood as a reaction to the Convict symbolism that resides at its very foundations that many contemporary Australians desperately want to disconnect themselves from. Australia Day was initiated by emancipated Convicts who probably needed to find something positive in their life of misery. For Convicts, January 26 1788 was not a happy time. Women were pack raped by officers on transport ships and then assigned to free settlers as if cattle. Meanwhile, men were flogged until their backbones were exposed to the flies. Despite these hardships, or perhaps because of them, in 1808, emancipated Convicts used January 26 as a date to organise great parties to celebrate the land they lived in. In a way, the parties celebrated their survival. Although the more “reputable” members of colonial society weren’t too keen on putting the old ball and chain on their legs in tribute to the founding fathers and mothers, they just couldn't say no to a great party.

As the parties grew in size, emancipists and their children infused them with political edge as they campaigned to have the same rights as free British migrants. In 1818, their cause was embraced by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who acknowledged the day with its first official celebration of what was then known as Foundation Day. 

Over the subsequent generations, the reputable members of society wanted to erase the Convict origins. Consequently, various groups started proposing different dates. When no alternative date could be found, they started portraying January 26 as the day the empire expanded rather than the day that the Convicts were landed. Perhaps the best example of the thinking came in 1938 when a re-enactment of the arrival of the first fleet had Arthur Phillip setting flight to a party of Aborigines. Convicts had not been included in the re-enactment. Not surprisingly, Aboriginal groups tended to be underwhelmed by how they were portrayed and some subsequently renamed Australia Day to Invasion Day. Meanwhile, media reports questioned the omission of Convicts, not necessarily because the journalists were proud of their Convict heritage but because the omission seemed somewhat fake.

The Founding of Australia [1937] by Algernon Talmadge. Some groups were not represented in the painting.

By the time of the 1988 Bicentennial, the policy of ignoring history while celebrating history was seriously offending Aboriginal groups along with white activists who saw the support of Aborigines as the best way to cast off their historical shackles binding them to British criminals. The legacy today is that Australian governments have been reluctant to assert anything about Australia, or support any re-enactments, for fear for inflaming varying sensibilities. Criticising the day has thus become to be seen by some as the most valid attitude to hold on Australia Day.

Admittedly, the disgruntled element is best defined as a minority of Australians. As for the rest, most light up a barbeque, go to the beach, or just enjoy the kind of lifestyle that has made so many people want to migrate to Australia. Their choice and their freedom was something the Convict initiators of the Australia Day did not have but perhaps made possible with their joyful protest.




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