What do we really celebrate on Australia Day?

Jan 26, 2021

Spare a thought for Australian representatives abroad who face awkward questions about what we celebrate on our National Day. It just goes to highlight the confusion and hypocrisy about pretending it was a noble venture by heroic and benign colonisers.

When I was an Australian ambassador, I was required to host an Australia Day reception. This was standard diplomatic practice. The size and scope varied but the format was fixed. A toast was proposed to the head of state of the host country who would respond with a toast to our head of state. A few words were said about the occasion and the relationship; these could be long winded and boring or short and to the point.

The toast was to the Queen of Australia. Despite all the obfuscation about the vice regal role we never toasted the Governor General as our head of state, which was at least accurate. This led to questions after the toast from various people about whether we were truly independent. We muttered something about yes, we were but this was historical and symbolic. Those mystically inclined talked about the Queen of Australia as a separate incarnation like a Hindu God. I don’t know how many people believed this tale which, as Pooh Bah in the Mikado put it, was designed to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing tale.

The real problem, however, arose when we were asked what event was being celebrated. For most countries it was their Independence Day, the monarch’s birthday or something of that nature. What event is Australia celebrating? Perhaps the arrival of the first illegal boat people? Or was it the beginning of British imperialism in our continent?

Invasion Day seems to be gaining currency and is also an accurate description of what we are celebrating. Needless to say, any ambassador who gave one of these as an answer would swiftly become DFAT representative in Oodnagalabi. Not a very flash idea for those interested in a career! So we were generally reduced to muttering something about it being our National Day and then having another drink.

Luckily, our national anthem was normally played by a band without words, which solved other potential problems. I must say, however, those who criticise the tune have never heard it played by the Sandinista Revolutionary Band in Nicaragua. They made it sound like La Marseillaise.

The Australian flag was prominently displayed, leading to questions about why the Union Jack was in the corner. The traditional answer had been that it represented our origins but this became increasingly difficult. Why not keep the flag as it is but replace the Union Jack by the Aboriginal flag? After all, they got here first – ab origine.

I hope, if only for the sake of those members of the Australian Diplomatic Service who are still in harness, that the current domestic debate will lead to much-needed changes.

Not a bad idea for the rest of us, too, whatever our origins!

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