26 January 2009
Australia Day, the 26th of January, commemorating the arrival of the First Fleet at what is now Sydney in 1788. Nowadays it’s a holiday, new citizens are sworn in, lord mayors make speeches, concerts are held on outdoor stages and the day finishes with a firework display.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd did his bit for political solemnity by naming an Aboriginal Australian as Australian of the year. Mick Dodson promptly bit the PM on the bum by stating that the day should be moved to another date, because Aboriginal Australians regard the date as Invasion Day, a day of mourning for the original occupants of the land.
A bit rich, considering that 95% of todays Aboriginal Australians have European or Asian ancestors and wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for their grandparents, but let’s not spoil a good Aussie whinge.
I wore my Australian flag tie, copping a few smiles and comments. Always nice to dress up a bit, at least as much as a cabbie uniform allows.
With the major Canberra celebration occurring on the weekend, in the form of a major free concert outside Parliament House, I was about as patriotic as it got today. I picked up a couple of young women with Australian flags on their cheeks, but as far as I could make out, they were Swedish tourists.
A few cars were flying Australian flags on plastic mountings, and here and there a green and gold t-shirt could be seen. But we’re not like other countries, making a meal out of national pride. You get more patriotic clothing and noises out of sporting contests than anything remotely political. Americans often have a flag flying outside their houses, but in Australia to have even a flagpole is a sign that there is something deeply wrong with the resident.
Americans make a fuss over presidential inaugurations, but in Australia, heads of state and heads of government are sworn in at private ceremonies in Government House. Maybe we’ll see a press photograph, maybe not. Nobody cares or waves a flag.
I finished my shift by taking a shortcut past Old Parliament House, now a museum. Across the road is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a motley collection of shacks and campfires, manned on a casual basis by people from the Sydney slum suburb of Redfern. The so-called embassy purports to represent the ancient sovereignty of Australia before European settlement, and the occupants want a treaty, their own state, massive reparations, freedom from taxation, rental income from ordinary Australians and special reserved seats in Parliament.
Most Aboriginal Australians live in cities, and are indistinguishable from the rest of the population, but the few who maintain a remnant of their tribal lives exist in small settlements remote from services, ridden with violence, drugs, sickness and crime. The most violent place on Earth, outside a warzone, is Palm Island in Queensland, an Aboriginal settlement with an economy almost entirely funded by government benefits.
In contrast to the sad and mixed remnants of the first Australians, I cannot help but think of the refugees who came here after the end of the Vietnam War. After sailing in leaky fishing boats through pirate waters, those that made it to Australia landed with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
A feature of citizenship ceremonies ever since, they and their children are the best investment Australia ever made. Doctors, lawyers, academics, solid business owners, they have set an example of hard work, devotion to study and attention to civic responsibility.
Successive waves of immigration have made Australia a melting pot and a rich stirfry of cultures. Nowadays we eat Thai tucker with chopsticks, flock to late-night kebab takeaways, and swoon over fresh naan bread in Indian restaurants. I need only look at my fellow taxidrivers to see the direction in which Australia is heading. We’re a world in microcosm and all the better for it.
I wear my Australian flag tie with pride. The British Union Jack features prominently, but, like our British heritage, it is fading. Within a generation we’ll likely have a new flag, a constitution that doesn’t have the British monarch playing a leading role, and a stronger confidence about our place in the world.
We’ve had our unpleasant moments, to be sure, but when I look at my nation, I see a peaceful land where riots are rare, civil war unknown, and all transitions of power are peaceful. Our American cousins might have begun their nation with a revolution, but we started with a signature. They had a bloody civil war, we had the Sheffield Shield cricket competition.
And may we keep it that way.