• Binalong Bay, Tasmania (Flickr/Steve Bittinger)
OPINION: After a decade of patriotic trumpery and toxic behaviour, many mob are disengaging with the day all together. Jack Latimore is one of them.
By
Jack Latimore

23 Jan 2019 - 6:27 PM  UPDATED 23 Jan 2019 - 6:30 PM

This time last year I flew out of Melbourne with my wife and son and headed for Tasmania.

Once there, we attempted to get away to an isolated location in the northeast of the island. Unfortunately, the effort was a failure.

After our best-laid plans were foiled, we were forced back down the road to stay in St Helens, a town established on whaling in the early 1800s. The next morning, January 26, we drove to Binalong Bay, parked the hire car, climbed down onto the eastern-most curve of the beach and fortressed ourselves amongst the smooth, elephantine rocks.

It went well, swimming in the cool, clear waters and staring across the bay at the near white sands of the beach until I had to return to the car to collect a nappy bag.

Crossing a gravel car park, a white ute and sedan— both heavily adorned with Australian flags —sharply veered in alongside me.

The occupants climbed out, each of them decked-out in Australian flag apparel, singlets, boards, thongs, some accessorised with a hat, or earrings. And draped over their pointy shoulders were the obligatory Australian flag capes.  

They were all twenty-somethings, white and visibly drunk. I minded my own business, attempted to quietly continue on my way, but the opportunity was too overwhelming for them. A flag was thrust in my face, followed by gibes and drunken hooting. Of course this wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced this kind of intrusive behaviour on January 26, it was merely just the latest.

My aversion to January 26 began when the tall ships dropped anchor in Farm Cove in 1988. I put it down to the crowd and its unrelenting blasting of vuvuzelas — a blaring that still sends nightmarish shivers down my spine.

A similar kind of nationalistic sentiment around the date of January 26 was re-kindled in 1997 with the Howard government settling into its first term in office after sweeping into power in March the year before. Seemingly in a single bound, the green boxing kangaroo of 80s Australia leapt back into national vogue to feature on flags, singlets, novelty barbecue aprons and thongs.

But in those middle years between '88 and '97, January 26 was just the public holiday that rounded-out the festive period. It was generally low-key.

From '97, due to the political manipulations of the former Prime Minister John Howard, the nature of January 26 began to change. Over the next 10 years, it mutated into something increasingly perverse.

From '97, due to the political manipulations of the former Prime Minister John Howard, the nature of January 26 began to change. Over the next 10 years, it mutated into something increasingly perverse.

In the 10 years to 2007, the boxing kangaroo was bounced in preference for ‘The Jack and Cross’; there was a proliferation of Southern Cross neck tattoos; a demand for flag face stickers grew; and flag-capes became a thing. And beneath all this trumpery, festered xenophobia, racism and ideological zealotry.

By the time Howard was triumphantly bundled out of power by the Australian Labor Party in late-2007, the jingoism had set in. For the next six years, the flag-waving mania persisted. Then, in September 2013, John Howard’s apprentice was elected PM.

For a period during his leadership of the nation, each time Tony Abbott took to a podium the number of flags behind him multiplied. Thankfully, after a month or so the spectacle was scaled-down, likely after Abbott’s key advisors realised the exercise had become too ludicrous to continue.

Also abiding by Howard’s political lead, Australia’s two most recent PMs have also sought to cultivate a national fervour that might assist in preserving their tenure. The sacrosanctity of January 26 as Australia Day has become something of a contemporary convincing ground in the political aspirations and posturing of both Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.

Opposition to January 26 as the day of national celebration has naturally run in parallel to efforts to promote it.

In 1988, there was the “long march for justice, freedom, and hope” which attracted over 40,000 participants from around Australia. The general enthusiasm for January 26 demonstrations then lulled for a period, before resistance was again reactivated during Howard’s reign.

Since 2012, the number of people joining Australia Day counter-rallies has steadily grown. In the last three years, a particularly dramatic spike in crowd numbers has seen the Melbourne rally elevated to mainstream news status, as up to 60,000 people converged on the intersection outside iconic Flinders Street Station.  

When the day of protest first began to gain popularity in 2016, there was a concerted push back by Australia’s political and cultural status quo to ‘reclaim’ January 26. The public witnessed this push as recently as yesterday when, in an official tweet, the Liberal Party boasted of taking action to “protect Australia Day from activists”.

Meanwhile, the hostility online around the January 26 is already outright toxic. Comment threads are resolutely tribal, no quarter is given to solicitude or compromise, there is zero respect, zero civility. 

Meanwhile, the hostility online around the January 26 is already outright toxic. Comment threads are resolutely tribal, no quarter is given to solicitude or compromise, there is zero respect, zero civility. Every post seeks to fuel conflict, to solicit more bodies onto the city streets in order to eclipse the perceived enemy.

Faced with this noxious environment, this year I decided to ask three Aboriginal women I barely know about their own experiences and perspectives of January 26, to discover whether I was alone in wanting to disengage on the day, but still remain in solidarity with the overall resistance to Australia Day.

Ms Digney and I met in a busy fish and chip shop in St Helens in the late afternoon of January 25 last year. The pakana woman was headed to Larapuna, Aboriginal land around Binalong Bay with her kids and even invited my own family to join them. Regretfully, I declined out of politeness.

When I recently contacted her to ask what compelled her to take that trip rather than joining the Invasion Day rally in her home city of Hobart, Ms Digney recalled not encountering a single flag-waver on the day.

“We did have conversations about it being Invasion Day,” she told me. “But that was it. Just chilled. No phone reception, so we weren’t on social media. We had to wait until we got back to see what had gone down.”

Ms Digney explained how the decision to take the trip was motivated by self-care after realising she needed to remove herself from the emotion and hostility of the day. 

“Even though the messages being put forward by our community are true and correct, people are just so wound up and angry. I just want to switch off from it,” she said.

“I’m definitely there [at the rally] in spirit; definitely there in solidarity, definitely agree with what my community is saying, but I just want to be on Country with my family.”

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Ms Digney said she believes the solution to the annual January 26 furore is to scrap celebrations on Australia Day altogether.

“I don’t think Australia can celebrate until it treats (treaty) with us Aboriginal people first,” she said. “So, just abolish the entire thing.”

In northern Queensland, Ms Brim, a Djabuganji and Kuku-Yalanji woman, said she had decided to sit-out January 26 years ago and was reminded why only last year after her children, aged between 2 and 7, were harassed in a park opposite their home.

“We literally never take them out on January 26, but thought we’d be safe in the park across the street,” she said. Then some men in utes began doing burn-outs around her kids, like they were “circling” them, Ms Brim said. 

“My sister was so shaken because they kept on coming back. She thought they were going to get out of their cars, or run the kids over.”

Elsewhere, Ms Hanshaw, an Awabakal-Gaewegal woman recalls how she left Sydney for the Hunter Valley right before the Bicentennial celebrations and the demonstrations kicked-off in 1988.

“I was just 22, I’d just found out I was pregnant and I needed to get the hell out of Sydney. It was the Australia Day long weekend,” she said.

“I think that’s where my anxiety comes from in January. I should be celebrating because it’s the month of my birthday, but [January 26] is a day of mourning for us. There’s so much emotion in this month for me.”

Ms Hanshaw, who grew up around Redfern in the 60s and 70s and whose mother was a survivor of the Stolen Generations, said although she chooses to avoid any celebration on January 26, the date should not be changed or abolished “under any circumstances”.

“I understand where people are coming from with that, but if you abolish the date, you also get rid of the history attached to that date,” she said.

“The date has to be recognised. But the truth of that date also has to be recognised.

“And January 26 should not be called, ‘Australia Day’. It should be called, ‘Memorial Day’. Keep the date, change the name.”

Like many other mob around the country, these three women will be avoiding as much as they can about Australia Day again this year. I think I’ll be joining them.

 

Jack Latimore is a Birpai man, NITV Digital Editor and regular contributor to The Guardian. Follow Jack @LatimoreJack

Jack Latimore will be a guest on The Point tonight at 8.30pm with Stan Grant, Celina Edmunds, Carla McGrath as they discuss the historic reactions to Indigenous protests and news coverage surrounding January 26. The Point, tonight 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34).