It could be because I’m only “half Australian”* (or for other reasons described below), but I found myself half-heartedly observing our national day yesterday, rather than enthusiastically celebrating. I only took part of the day off and the extent of my observance amounted to listening to a few songs from my “Australia Day” playlist on Spotify and enjoying a late afternoon walk in the bush with my wife.
It’s not that there’s a lack of things to be thankful for when it comes to being born in this country and enjoying the quality of life that God has graciously granted our society. As Chris Berg pointed out on ABC’s the Drum, Australia has an awful lot going for it. We can at times be a nation of whingers, who find thanksgiving and gratitude difficult – but the reality is we have an abundance of things we ought to be extremely grateful for.
But a national day like 26th January reminds me that when it comes to national pride there are always people who lose out. And contests around issues of national identity must almost necessarily have winners and losers.
While there is much to be celebrated when it comes to the progress this country has made since the landing of the First Fleet at Port Jackson in 1788, there is also much to be mourned when it comes to how much suffering white settlement has caused to Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. To change the date of Australia Day, as has been proposed and echoed frequently over the years, would infuriate many “Aussie patriots” and risk denying the significance of what could be regarded as the genesis of Australia’s modern history.
Yet to continue celebrating the 26th January the way we currently do will mean an annual rubbing of salt into the wounds of a large portion of the Aboriginal community.
Seems as though someone must lose for others to win.
This extends to how we construct our national identity more broadly too. While Australia Day offers opportunities to celebrate diversity and welcome new citizens into our society, it also runs the risk of promoting superficial stereotypes of “Aussie culture” that can easily marginalise those who don’t easily fit the ethnic and cultural mold. For some it may be an opportunity to flex the muscles of Anglo-Saxon cultural dominance and dress up a bit of white supremacy in the Australian or Eureka flags.
On the flipside, to embrace a multi-cultural vision of Australia that celebrates the ancestral cultures of every kind of migrant as special, except for those who have white skin and are of English descent, is just as deficient. As a school student I couldn’t help but feel that my lack of a secret, non-Anglo branch in my ancestry gave me less to celebrate in an environment where great efforts were made to emphasise multicultural beauty. Because of what is, in my opinion, Australia’s cultural immaturity in how it relates to its origins as a British colony, white Australians are taught to think of themselves simply as “Australians.”
But if we emphasise multicultural diversity this potentially creates a mindset where an Italian-Australian or an African-Australian are conceptualised as full participants in all that it means to be Australian, with a rich Italian or African cultural heritage they should be encouraged to celebrate and share with others. That leaves ordinary, boring Anglo-Australians (who I acknowledge were the privileged class for many years, and still are in some cases) with a common national and cultural identity they’re to share with everyone else in the classroom, workplace and community, but with no special cultural heritage they’re encouraged to celebrate and share with others (except maybe with overseas visitors!).
While I recognise that Australians of different ethnic backgrounds will often have negative stories of racism and how they wished it was easier to fit in without being discriminated against, I struggled with the boringness of not having something different to celebrate.
This is probably one reason I lack enthusiasm for Australia Day and Aussie nationalism.
When pressured to choose between intensifying my identification as a “true Australian” and delegitimising the Australianness of others (as I see many in today’s society attempting to do) and embracing the version of multiculturalism that elevates bi-cultural Aussies to a position above the mono-cultural, been-here-too-long-to-still-think-we’re-British types, I’d prefer to steer clear of both and get on with life.
Of course mending the relationship between Indigenous and white Australians is crucial to our future as a nation, yet focusing too much on this particular element may have the side-effect of seeing our society as an ongoing dialogue between black and white citizens – in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and Australians of British heritage are the main stakeholders in our nation. In this scenario, “new Australians” of the post-war era that have little to do with this old rift would be left on the margins of the national discussion.
I seriously doubt we can celebrate Aussie pride and engineer a national identity in a way that makes everyone a winner. This suspicion is further confirmed by the other old battles that some attempted to reignite around the holiday. The tired old push for a republic, which for some time now has been wheezing in its struggle for the oxygen of relevance, has apparently been given a bill of good health. Now it can once again divide the nation between those who are loyal to the Crown (or at least happy with our present constitutional arrangements) and those who want a “mate for head of state” (despite still lacking a concrete model for a republic 17 years after that very weakness robbed them of any chance of winning the 1999 referendum).
The ABC was also running stories on possible replacements for the Australian flag, which do away with the Union Jack and supposedly provide us with a more mature, distinctive national standard. Again, someone must lose out – whether it’s those who love the current flag and see it as the banner our ANZACs died under, or those who see the present standard as a colonial relic that needs to better reflect our national identity in the 21st century.
I’m thankful to God for His kindness to the people of this land; for the freedom to worship and spread the gospel in relative peace; for sparing us from invasion, civil war, major terror attacks, epidemics and crippling national disasters; and for stable, relatively corruption-free government, under a good constitution and an admirable Queen. But I’ll hold my identity as an Australian lightly and loosely. Partly because I’ve been pushed by my civic education to look elsewhere for something that makes me special (that all important Gen Y quality!) and partly because the gospel of Jesus Christ has given me a richer identity to celebrate.
Today, and all year round I’ll be celebrating my citizenship in heaven, my belonging in the Kingdom of God and my allegiance to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Anyone of any background can opt in and no one need lose out – unless they choose to. We can all glorify God with our cultural diversity, and yet the common identity we have by grace in Christ is the primary thing we celebrate. While the Church, like Australia, may falter in her attempts to bring men, women and children from all nationalities and cultures together into one integrated people – she is destined to succeed where multicultural societies will ultimately fail. I look forward to the day I can rejoice before the throne of God with people from every nation, tribe and tongue – not as a culturally dominant person, nor as a marginalised person – but as an equal, fellow-citizen with an international body of saints in the greatest society there could ever be.
 Andrew Muller, “Australia Day, Sandy Point 2007” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
 Bentley-Smith “200507 Tent Embassy” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
 Selina “IMG_0175” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr
 Public Stock “Australian Flag” (CC BY 2.0) flickr
*Shhh, my father is a New Zealander! Maybe that’s been my problem all along