Comment: A case of mistaken identity

Just what does Australia Day mean and how should we celebrate it? We mistake the holiday because it mistakes us, writes Craig Hildebrand-Burke.

Just what does Australia Day signify and how should we celebrate it? We mistake the meaning of the national holiday because it mistakes who we are, writes Craig Hildebrand-Burke.

With another Australia Day behind us, it is worth considering just how clear we are on what we’ve actually celebrated. This long weekend marks twenty years since all states and territories formally celebrated Australia Day on January 26th, commemorating the day Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Port Jackson and took ‘formal possession’ of the colony. That Australia Day has only become a recent public holiday tradition speaks to our shortsighted view of national identity.

Unfortunately, it seems in the last few years the only tradition the country seems intent on establishing on January 26th is public drunkenness, a fact that has caused much consternation in sections of the media in the last few weeks. Whether drunken violence is the epidemic some claim it to be matters not this long weekend, what’s more important is whether this is the image we have of ourselves. We seem so enamoured with white settlement in Australia that we only see fit to express it through inebriation.

Australia Day has in a short time become an excuse to extend the summer holiday. It speaks less to our sense of national identity and more to our reluctance to embrace the reality of our nation. While significant for other reasons, January 26th has little relevance to Australia as a federated country, and even less to the far more established indigenous history of the land. We mistake the holiday because it mistakes us.

What are young Australians to make of all this? What is the country we are creating for them? The fact that this year has begun with the Minister for Education throwing the national curriculum into new levels of discombobulation illustrates the divide between how we see and celebrate our country and how it actually is. Kevin Donnelly and Christopher Pyne make no secret of returning the study of Australian history back to a Western-oriented perspective. To develop the ‘good, long-term education policy’ that Pyne is intent on creating requires a good, long-term perspective of the country. To do this would be to acknowledge what Australia Day is: an incidental date in the history of the land.

Donnelly, handpicked by Christopher Pyne to head a review into the national curriculum, claims Australian students must have a ‘balanced and objective’ view of the country, but this is not possible when that view is distorted beyond clarity. Students and teachers are aware Australia as a nation was not established on January 26th in 1788. The classrooms of 21st century Australia owe as much or as little to that date as they do to Federation Day, ANZAC Day, the hanging of Ned Kelly, the life of William Lanne or Edith Cowan’s election to parliament.

The way current curriculum implements Australian history acknowledges the breadth and complexity of our nation, without reducing it to a series of events around white settlement. Under Donnelly and Pyne’s thinking, our indigenous history is merely a footnote - a ‘prism’ - to serve as a backdrop to the debt that Australia owes to Judeo-Christian values. So too with multiculturalism, shunted aside in favour of ‘the benefits of Western civilisation.’ Such thinking is myopic, and drives a wedge between communities, particularly when we have the well-established Invasion Day protests that occur each year. The defacing of James Cook’s family home displays the end result of such rhetoric from politicians.

There is nothing positive to be gained from forcing a country to accept a divisive date as nation-defining. We need to allow young Australians to see the land as a varied and growing nation, and we need to celebrate our long and diverse origins in a better way than we currently do. Pyne and Donnelly have to realise that their words and actions are harmful to our students, and that their vision of Australia is incongruous with the ‘peaceful, tolerant and open society’ they claim to want. For this to happen, we cannot allow the government to whitewash Australian history for the students. We can’t allow Australia Day to become a defining day of insults and jingoism.

We still don’t know what Australia is as a country. As a federated nation, we are too few and too young to have any clear view of ourselves. The best we can do, for young Australians especially, is to allow an open understanding of our country and our country’s potential, and not prioritise events in our past to the detriment of others with greater meaning.

Craig Hildebrand-Burke is a writer and teacher from Melbourne.

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