Until recently, Australia Day for most was just a long weekend to do nothing. I yearn for such a return. Who wants immigration ministers feeling they can decide what we should wear, and what we should be doing? That official bossiness is a precursor to a national security state and social exclusion.
It took a good deal of work, mostly by highly subsidised committees of worthy folk, to turn Australia Day into a day of conscripted busyness. I’m not sure they have achieved any sort of enthusiasm for ceremony, ritual, outpourings of national pride or banal comments from our politicians or civic leaders.
National pride rang strong, but it was more about sporting success than about complacent (and in the case of Morrison, chronically inaccurate) remarks about the history of Britons in or around Australia, or some sense that we should wrap ourselves in the Australian flag.
Indeed, the appropriation of the Australian flag by ultra-nationalists, including Cronulla rioters, and by politicians such as Tony Abbott has probably undermined its unifying qualities. That’s quite apart from the fact that the idea of the Australian flag as something “we fought under” is, like the history of a national Australia Day, much exaggerated.
Aboriginal Australians are one group particularly hostile to the idea of celebrating the British invasion. That is not a feeling to be appeased by changing one word of a national anthem which to many Australians, not just Aboriginal Australians, feels bland, next to meaningless and musically uninteresting.
It is quite clear that Morrison understands intellectually the particular offence the day gives to Indigenous Australians. But it is also quite clear that for him, it is a matter of ‘heart’ rather than ‘head’, and that a retreat on the principle would involve some concession against general equality or national unity.
It’s a bit like the specious argument put up, originally by Malcolm Turnbull, ruling out the Uluru Statement from the heart as an impermissible demand for the third chamber of parliament and special legal status for indigenous Australians.
Morrison is happy enough to have eminent Australians, politicians and the cream of Indigenous national leadership dicker around forever looking for some form of words, perhaps including acknowledgment of original sovereignty in the constitution. The less time they will then spend making trouble about the growing gap, about the effect of the pandemic in exacerbating Aboriginal disadvantage, or about the “law and order” crisis that sees disproportionate numbers of Indigenous Australians in custody.
But under him, any Aboriginal voice will never involve any barrier to the exercise of the sovereignty of his parliament or his government. It will be that thing Morrison has specialised in marketing; a statement of good general intentions without any imposition of legal duty or accountability.
Morrison has vague feelings of goodwill for Aborigines, so long as they keep to their place and avoid the wrath of a policeman. His father is said to have had a bundle of views about Aborigines, not so surprising given that cops from his police station once loaded Aborigines, indiscriminately, into the paddy wagons at the Empress Hotel, Redfern. And those who doubt the strengths of such sentiments around the government should measure the palpable outrage among conservatives at the High Court’s notion that people of Aboriginal ancestry cannot be deported. How un-Australian could judges get?
The Biden inauguration may have given Australians some feel for American pomp and circumstance. It was entirely American and entirely un-Australian. Yet it was impressive, not least with any number of speeches expressing sentiments and positive unifying intentions. They contained an intellectual and emotional power — and a grasp of history and religion — beyond anything Morrison, or anyone in his government, has ever been able to express.
The appeal was greater because it followed a consciously polarising and divisive presidency. Morrison was slow to criticise Trump supporters, and even slower to criticise Trump, with whose policies and approach he has become associated, and from whom he has accepted a bogus and empty honour that was once of some prestige.
However, Australia will strain to become besties with Biden over climate change — the subject of a new sense of urgency in Washington. Morrison’s defiant insistence that Australian climate change policies will be set by Australians rather than world bodies invites the question of who is suggesting otherwise?
The real question is why Australia, now almost alone of the industrialised world ignores the overwhelming evidence and is so fixated on doing the very least it can get away with. Just what does that say about the patriotism, the vision and the moral leadership of Morrison, his government, and the sectional interests to which it is so shamefully beholden.
It would be wonderful if the close conjunction of the US inauguration and Morrison’s Australia Day could inspire a statement of positive intent about decisive action on climate. Even better would be a speech that went beyond civic platitudes about unity, duty and the glorious examples and achievements of our British pioneers. One that addressed modern issues and problems in society, and the role that government and the community could play in dealing with them. One that contained vision, rather than slogans, and moral force rather than complacent boasts. I believe it is too much to ask from a man of limited vision, pedestrian ideas, and decidedly unchristian sentiment.
Morrison’s approach to the meaning and significance of Australia Day may delay any change of the date. But that does not reduce the momentum, or the long-term opinion that makes a change inevitable.
His replacement may get plaudits by announcing a prompt change as a symbol of a new woman, or man, in charge. It will seem more significant than the substitution of a word in a national anthem. After all, most Australians cannot remember more than its first two lines. How delicious that a self-proclaimed champion of free speech thinks sporting artisans should stick to their trades and leave the politics to him.