Australia Day marks the date when the First Fleet landed in NSW in 1788 and raised the Union Jack on behalf of Britain. Having majored in history at university, I am quite aware of how different groups view this seminal event in our nation’s history. Historical events are always open to different interpretations. Whatever differences people may have, Australia Day is an opportunity for us all to come together and celebrate those things that unite us. It is a day in our calendar which invites us to pause and consider our country and what is means to be Australian.
I am 35 years old, which by my reckoning means that I am not that old and I am not that young but somewhere in the middle.
When my parents’ generation - the baby boomers - were growing up, Australia was still a relatively British Australia. They grew up singing God Save the Queen at school. The currency in their wallets was still the pound and would not change to dollars until 1966.
I was born in 1981. In primary school, every week we would assemble in the gym and sing a different national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. Most of us dreamed of getting the formalities out of the way. We couldn’t believe that although we were in the gym, we weren’t playing any sport. In class, as well as learning about traditional Australian culture through folk songs such as Waltzing Matilda, our Australia was continuing to open up further to the world and we also began learning about the history of other nations.
When I was born, Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister but by the time I was going to primary school, Bob Hawke had succeeded him. By the early 1980s multiculturalism had become a defining feature of the country. Australia increasingly sought to take an independent stance in the family of nations. I grew up working in kilometres and kilograms and I struggle to think in stones and pounds.
In 2000 I moved to South Africa, where the national day is known as “Freedom Day”. It was celebrated for the first time in 1995 following the transformational elections the previous year after a long history of apartheid. South Africans struggled for a long time to get to where they are today and they are now often referred to as the “Rainbow Nation”. We are often told that Australia is a “young nation”. Australia federated in 1901 and the first time we celebrated what we call “Australia Day” was in 1935. So our national day is some 60 years older than the South African national day.
In 2006 I moved again and went to live in Japan. Of course Japan is a country with a history quite different from our own but they have their own national day. Beginning when Japan first became a modern nation in 1872 until 1948, they celebrated their national day centred around their own monarch. After WWII that day became known as Foundation Day and it would be fair to say it’s not celebrated in Japan as strongly as we celebrate our national day.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison is with the United States. Independence Day, also known as the 4th of July, marks the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776. Significantly, the American national day was marked by their desire to separate from Britain.
In some ways, we must seem like a strange bunch to the Americans. They were prepared to go to war to separate from Britain. In WWI, we volunteered to fight forBritain. Equally, the Japanese must scratch their heads at these people known as Australians. The Japanese have a citizen of their own as their head of state while we retain the King or Queen of Britain as our head of state.
But we have always known that we have our own history. And we are happy to be exactly who we are. Yes, we have a British head of state, but we are happy not to go to war with Britain over it. We respect the American people, but all the same we do not wish to be clones of America.
So who are we?
It is said that Australians value a fair go. Australians tend to believe that everyone should have access to opportunities regardless of wealth or birth. Australians would rather have a classless society. They don’t mind people succeeding through hard work, but don’t want to abandon the value of general equality.
Australians are said to value mateship. This goes back to our experience in wartime in places like Gallipoli and Kokoda. The idea is that we stick by our mates and help those who are in need. Most of those who help others are not off fighting wars but are volunteering with the CFA or any number of voluntary organisations or simply calling in on a mate to check that they are travelling OK.
We are a tolerant people. This is one of the great features of modern Australia. Like the United States, we are a nation of different backgrounds. Sometimes we don’t recognise the success of our nation until we look at some places in the world where they fight civil wars over what religion you follow or what colour your skin is.
We are said to have a bit of the larrikin spirit in us and don’t like formality. My profession outside of being a councillor is teaching a Japanese martial art called Aikido. It is a normal part of our training to bow at certain times to senior students or to your instructor. Most Australians and Americans find it very awkward to bow. Not physically, but in our core because it feels as though it goes against the grain of who we are as a people. As Australians, we value equality and informality. We don’t believe that anyone is inherently superior or inferior to anyone else. So even though bowing is just another way of showing respect, Aussies find it difficult to do.
Recently I attended a citizenship ceremony, an event that council frequently holds. Our new citizens came from all over the world. There were individuals and there were families. There were those who spoke English as their first language and some who struggled a little with the language on the night. They all pledged their loyalty to Australia and promised to uphold the laws of the land.
Our Australia is something that these people and many others want to be a part of. We are not British, South African, Japanese or American, although we may at times share some of the same qualities. We are a unique people formed by a shared history under southern skies and we understand what makes us tick even if the Australian character leaves other nations a bit perplexed.
This is an edited version of an address by Cr Julian Brown at the Inverloch War Memorial on Australia Day.