Australia Day is this country's official national day, celebrated annually on 26 January, the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet at Port Jackson. Like it or not, the date and the historic traditions of Australia Day (previously called "Foundation Day among other names) signify a recognition of Australia's colonial origins and the beginning of European settlement. Many other new world countries have similar days. Columbus Day, for example,is a public holiday in many countries in the Americas, and officially celebrates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America in 1492.
In 1979 the Commonwealth established what is now the National Australia Day Council to make future celebrations 'truly national and Australia-wide'. The meaning and significance of Australia Day has been broadened, as has the nature of many of the celebrations. The question is whether the change has been for the better.
My gripe is that Australia Day has become nondescript and, in attempting to make it appealing to everyone, it fulfils neither its original nor its amended purpose. Worse still, I would argue that many current Australia Day institutions and celebrations no longer fit well with accepted Australian values and have been drowned in political correctness.
Colonisation always diminishes the status of Indigenous populations so it is obvious why Indigenous Australians might not want to celebrate the arrival of the First Fleet. Equally, it is obvious that migrants from non-British traditions might not identify with the Australia represented by the original New South Wales colony, and be indifferent about celebrating its beginnings.
Against all this, one can make a good case for retaining the original character of Australia Day. First of all (and whatever our views) the Poms did bring with them many of the values and institutions that we value. These include possibly the best standards of administration (among colonising countries). They also brought democratic traditions, and legal, educational, and social institutions that are the envy of many countries. By moving away from the original flavour of Australia Day, we are almost saying that we are no longer proud of the positive aspects of our history. Given that our Indigenous population has its own NAIDOC Week and each ethnic group celebrates its own national day, it can be argued that the arrival of the First Fleet is sufficiently important to deserve a day of its own.
The 'broader concept' of Australia Day that we now celebrate has many contradictions. Firstly, if the nation wants a broader celebration, then surely a different date to 26 January could be picked. (Many within the Indigenous community will never be able to celebrate on that date.) Secondly, our Australia Day celebrations need to be selected in the light of what 'Australian values' comprise.
When we think about what it means to be "Australian", we usually think about a people who are naturally down-to-earth, who don't like to put on airs and graces, and have an underlying distain for pomposity and excessive authority. We are noted for liking the outdoors, our sport, our barbecue, and a beer or wine. Our historical landmarks include our ancient Aboriginal heritage, Cook, the First Fleet, the Rum Rebellion, the Eureka Stockade, the Kelly Gang, Gallipoli, the Anzac spirit of mateship and our post-war waves of immigration. We are accepting of migrants and their traditions, but, in reality, we warm to them more when they learn to speak in an Australian accent, integrate, and participate in the cricket, footy or netball.
One of my complaints is that the Australia Day events, as they are currently constituted, don't reflect our values. Instead we have an orgy of events that instead celebrate elites, dispense meaningless honours, displaypolitical correctness, and unduly employ has-been entertainers.
Most Australians seem to merely tolerate the multitude of awards associated with Australia Day. We don't just have one Australian of the Year. We have three of them, including a Senior Australian of the Year, and a Young Australian of the Year (to avoid accusations of 'ageism'?). Then we have the multitude of Order of Australia awards (with no less than five classes) and Australia's Local Hero awards, and then there's a heap of Australia Day Ambassadors. For a country that supposedly does not like elites this is a contradiction. Most of the honours seem pointless anyway, since so many are granted to people merely doing their jobs (e.g. business people, public servants, academics, the military). There is also a strong air of political correctness and bureaucratic procedure about the whole process of selection.
This year we are told by Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith that Australia Day should be a day of respect and understanding among the nation's diverse population. While this is a laudable notion, it is hard to see how 'respect and understanding' is central to Australia day. The reference no doubt relates to social harmony in the context of both multiculturalism and the prevention of violence against women, but this is hardly a uniquely Australian theme.
Australia Day celebrations often include multicultural food or migrant cultural events as major elements. While there is certainly a place for such events, I wonder whether the emphasis on the food and culture of other countries is best celebrated on our national day. I love the odd sate, stir fry or baklava but I think that, on Australia day, Australian dishes should not be upstaged by celebrations of the food of other nations. Citizenship ceremonies celebrating migrants becoming Australian citizens deserve a more prominent place in Australia Day celebrations than events where migrants they demonstrate their cultural differences from us.
One aspect of the contemporary Australia Day celebrations I do look forward to each year is the annual (tongue-in-cheek) Australia Day lamb ad. Hurray for Sam Kekovich and (this year) for Lee Lin Chin too! Banter aside, there is nothing more Australian than a lamb, steak, prawn (not shrimp!), or sausage barbeque on Australia Day!