On 26 January 2012 Australian temperatures were running high. We had been well warned about the dangers of binge-drinking in the middle of a heat-wave, but less attention was focussed on the emotional heat that flares up on all sides of debate on perhaps the most controversial day on the Australian calendar.
To those of us of a left-leaning persuasion, our national holiday is unproblematically problematic. Even if we support the basic notion of some form of 'Australia Day', the anniversary of white settlement is at best an insensitive day to choose to hold it. The genocidal policies that began on that day against the original inhabitants of this land are well-documented. And yet, even after a national day of apology to the entire Aboriginal population, we hold our national celebration on invasion day.
Beyond this most basic issue of cultural offence, there are a host of other reasons to be careful about how one celebrates love of country. On a general level, there are the dangers of nationalism. Love of one's home is natural and even commendable, but belief that one country is inherently better than any other slips into the realms of intolerance and hate. In more specific concerns, we have to ask who we are including in a day of national celebration. Do we have 'boundless plains to share' with new and old inhabitants of Australia and a desire to celebrate our diversity, or are we more concerned about maintaining a set and definable identity which may exclude some of our number?
Perhaps in a back-lash to growing awareness of these problems, perhaps for other reasons, there has appeared to be a discomforting increase in celebrations that are a little too enthusiastic about certain definitions of Australia. There has been a feeling of the once fun day being hijacked by a racist minority. We have been seeing too many cars sporting both our national flag, and the violent slogans which are unfortunately allowed on our streets; "F off we're full"; "If you don't love it, leave" and their ilk; which declare not only that new migrants are unwelcome, but also that dissent or even complaint against the national culture will not be tolerated. Such moments have led many of us to fear the flag, even when displayed on the one day of the year that Australians once felt free and proud to fly it.
On the 24th of January a report was published on the ABC and across commercial news that suggested flag-flyers on Australia Day are more likely than not to hold racist views. To some this report will come as no surprise, and be viewed merely as evidence of what we already know to be true. But others, as I encountered on the eve of the public holiday, have taken this as an attack and reacted by celebrating Australia Day with even greater gusto, flying as many flags as possible in defiance of what they see as unpatriotic nonsense. To those who have not come to fear the racism and intolerance in our society, such a study may well seem an unnecessary slur against a simple act of celebrating their personal definition of Australian-ness.
Hearing a legitimate study referred to as a "crock of sh*t" in my workplace was confronting, but no doubt less difficult to take than the hate mail that has since been directed at the researchers who undertook the study. Despite the media coverage correctly emphasising that the study in no way marks all flag-flyers as racist, a different interpretation has been made by many readers. It was in attempting to understand such vehement reactions that I have felt compelled to describe what Australia Day and the flag has come to mean for many of us, as it clearly holds a very different meaning to those who were offended by the research. When so small a matter as a flag on a car can cause such controversy, it is clear that deep tensions lie beneath the surface of the seemingly united celebrators of Australia Day.
If we are to move forward from the horrors of the past and away from the racism that exists in our present, we will need to reconcile these two perspectives - the desire to celebrate our love of home, and the need to make all who call Australia home to feel safe, welcome and included. Those wary of the flag should take the advice of the above researchers, and understand that most Australia Day revellers are not racist, but simply proud Australians who love their home; and those who choose to fly the flag might pause to consider the reasons that some of us have come to fear it.
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