Dean Smith


A Personal View

Reflections on Australia Day

January 27, 2017

Every year, more and more newspapers, talkback radio programs, and social media posts subject the public to mindless rants of whether January 26 should be our national day, or labelling those who wear our flag as a sign of patriotism as boorish, insensitive louts.

We even have a debate from all sides over whether the traditional MLA “Lamb ad” is either too politically correct or too culturally insensitive.

Considering the purpose of this ad is not to promote our national holiday but convince consumers to buy lamb chops seems lost on many. At least last year they only upset vegans.

Yet we often forget that Australia Day — to borrow the slogan of the 1988 bicentennial campaign — is the celebration of a nation.

And, more importantly, it is the celebration of our nation.

And while it once was the commemoration of a particular historical event, it has evolved over time to represent something far broader, the birth of our national identity. This is something that is not uniquely Australian, for it is commonplace with most national holidays around the globe.

The Americans celebrate their independence day on July 4 — the date in 1776 when the US Continental Congress declared war on the British Empire, leaving over 50,000 American and British soldiers killed in battle or from disease, and forcing over 70,000 Loyalists to flee their homes and farms.

France’s national holiday commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 — an event that when it finally ended saw the execution by guillotine of over 16,000 French citizens during the reign of terror.

And even in the United Kingdom, Guy Fawkes Night, the annual commemoration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, was for many years a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment, burning effigies of unpopular figures of the time.

Despite their dark, historical origins these national celebrations, and the hundreds like them, have become symbols of unity, not division. They are celebrations of national pride, citizenship, community, and shared values.

And so it is on our national holiday.

January 26, 1788 is the birth of our modern nation and, like any birth, it can be both a traumatic and a joyful event. But it was just that, a birth. It does not define us as a nation any more than our own birth defines us as an adult.

It is the starting point of a long journey, especially when you are talking about nations.

It took 113 years after the arrival of the First Fleet for Australia to become a Federation, 114 years for most women to be allowed to vote, 179 years for Aboriginals to vote, 196 years to adopt Advance Australia Fair as our national anthem.

In the 229 years since our birth we, as a nation, have been involved in two world wars, sent troops to Vietnam, held two Olympic Games, established universal health care, and introduced gun-control laws.

We have been the home for millions of migrants and thousands of refugees, and we have built the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and the Goldfields water pipeline.

We invented the Hills Hoist, the wine cask, the bionic ear, and wi-fi.

We have even graciously shared with the world Hugh Jackman, Kylie Minogue, Elle Macpherson, INXS and introduced the world to Vegemite.

But, most importantly, we have created a nation where those most basic freedoms of parliamentary democracy — the freedom of thought, worship, speech and association have flourished.

Each year every one of us will celebrate our own birthday, yet it is not a celebration of how we began but a reflection on who we are and what we will become.

It’s a time we focus not on the mistakes of the past but on the opportunities and hopes for our future.

Surely we can embrace the same sentiment on the birthday of our nation, Australia.

I trust you, your family and friends had an enjoyable Australia Day.

PS. Click here to read my comments as published in yesterdays The West Australian.

As published in The West Australian on Thursday, 26 January 2017.