By ROLF GERRITSEN
The recent Australia Day celebrations led me to reflections on the history and social agenda of cultural nationalism. All nations have celebrations that represent some historical event; viz India’s Republic Day celebration (coincidentally on January 26th) to mark its independence from Britain. We have Australia Day and Anzac Day as the premier celebrations of our nation’s meaning. We also have a colonial flag and an incomplete political evolution to a republic that provide areas of cultural contestation.
Above: Looking outwards during India’s republic Day celebrations, a float honouring 25 years of ASEAN (with which Australia has a strategic partnership). Screen capture from The Hindu, “As it happened | India celebrates 69th Republic Day”, photo credit R.V. Moorthy.
The brouhaha around our Australia Day centres on two issues:
- Aboriginal angst about their sorry history of being killed, dispossessed and institutionalised;
- Historical arguments about whether January 26 is the appropriate date for our national day.
Many Aboriginal persons rightly feel ambivalent about celebrating our national day on the date the British formally began invading and conquering our continent. I have some sympathy for that viewpoint but do not think we can remove that discontent by merely changing the date of Australia Day. A different conversation is required here.
The historical case is similarly confused. Governor Arthur Phillip declared British possession of two thirds of the continent of New Holland (as it was then called) and named it New South Wales. As a former Western Australian I note that that portion of the continent was not included. Indeed, I could argue that January 26 is Eastern New Holland day!
New Holland as a description of our continent was not displaced in general usage by Australia until after the 1830s. Governor Phillip also hoisted a flag that was different from that in pride of place on our current national escutcheon, which was not adopted until 1806. Perhaps the May date of the convening of the first federal (Australian) Parliament would be better? At least that would avoid adopting the day that the constitution was enacted, January 1, which would rob us of a public holiday.
Either way, these two occasions were the first all-Australian events and created the nation we inhabit.
Our national flag has the Union Jack in a position that heraldic usage suggests indicates our subordination to the United Kingdom. In 1954 Prime Minister Robert Menzies (he of the Knight of the Thistle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports) overrode a parliamentary select committee recommendation that we adopt a flag suited to our unique circumstances. He selected what was then called the blue ensign.
Left: Flags flying outside the Alice Springs Civic Centre. Two local councillors, Catherine Satour and Jacinta Price, have been key instigators of the local debate leading up to this year’s Australia Day.
In World War 1 Australians had mostly (until 1917) fought under the Union Jack. In North Africa in World War 2 Australians fought under the Union Jack, the red ensign and the blue ensign. Notwithstanding this history, it is clear that a large proportion of our population has an (irrational?) attachment to the blue ensign as our national symbol. This is notwithstanding that it is a colonial, not an independent national flag.
Most Australians (according to the opinion polls) think we should be a republic. But they prefer a directly-elected President. This is dangerous. The head of state of Australia has unstated and undefined “reserve” powers. The Governor General (or the President, if we go for the directly-elected model) can sack the Parliament and appoint ministers who can act for three months. I am no lawyer but I suspect he/she could do that for quite a while.
Twice at the state level (Victoria in the 1870s, NSW in 1932) and once at the federal level (1975) vice regal representatives have sacked democratically elected governments. The head of state should be, as the English constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot suggested, the “dignified” portion of the constitution. If we make the post directly elected, that will be impossible.
Perhaps we should import a Nordic or Dutch prince/princess to become king/queen of Australia? Or ask Prince Harry to become King of Australia? I don’t know if Yarralumla and Admiralty Houses would be too down-market for him, but we could make the offer. History is replete with examples of the cadet branch of a royal family becoming kings/queens in another jurisdiction. At least then we would be constitutionally sovereign!
My point about these musings above is that we are currently faced by a social contest over the symbols and meaning of our nation. We cannot deny our history, but we need to incorporate its progress and triumphs (eg we are a very successful multicultural society) in our national psyche and celebrations. The large demonstrations, especially in Melbourne, on Australia Day suggest that our cultural symbols are interpreted differently within our society.
Dispute about Australia Day, the flag and the republic will continue. Essentially (ignoring the extremists in both camps) we have a debate between some people who think we need to update our cultural symbols and those who think that Australia is just bonzer as it is. I think that, gradually over the next generation, the bonzer-ites will lose. The rising tide of youth are against them.
Rolf Gerritsen has been a Professorial Research Fellow at Charles Darwin University since late 2007. He is a frequent contributor to public conversation in Alice Springs.
Let’s have an Australia Day when we are ready for it