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Newsletter 374

Published January 25, 2021
Under two flags, Straya Day

Apologies for the lateness of this mail-out (again!), but this is what happens when one loses a couple of working days and then gets a few extra tasks. I’m running the Patty Larter piece this week but having to hold one that I’ve written on Wendy Sharpe’s exhibition at the Mosman Art Gallery. I’m assured by my editor at the ‘Herald that everything will soon be back to normal, although after four years of Trumpiana who can say what’s “normal” in this world any more?

For the Australia Day issue of the Financial Review I’ve written up Robert Connolly’s The Dry, which is one of the better local films you’ll see in 2021. If it’s not in the same class as classic Australian movies by Peter Weir, Phil Noyce, Bruce Beresford and Fred Schepisi it’s a solid, well-made mystery with enough local colour to touch Aussie heartstrings and make the rest of the world wonder about the hot, dry land where the story takes place, and the peculiar people who live there. It’s also a genre film that links in with the global pattern of setting a fictional detective within a particular city or landcape – Ian Rankin’s Rebus in Edinburgh, Henning Mankell’s Wallander in southern Sweden, Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti in Venice, etc – so that the environment becomes a vivid part of the action.

If I were looking for a topic to rave on about this week, there’s only one candidate: Australia Day. With each passing year this day is becoming a bigger flash point within Australian culture. Now rechristened Invasion Day by indigenous groups it has become a stimulus for large-scale protests that have the potential to be super-spreaders in 2021.

We’ve already seen the reliable Scummo open his mouth and say something smartarse and insensitive.. (..it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either”), which only helps to promote division and conflct. We’ve seen the outcomes of such a strategy in America, with tens of thousands of delusional nitwits – and a few sinister troublemakers – storming the Capitol. Do we really want to see this country divided into fanatical opponents of Australia Day and equally fanatical defenders?

I suspect many of those who want to keep 26th January exactly the way it is are chiefly concerned about keeping a holiday, or rather another excuse for a barbie and a booze-fest. If it’s merely a matter of changing the date, then why not change the date? Australia Day should be a celebration of our unity as a nation, not a jingoistic display of nationalistic nonsense. Instead of commemorating the First Fleet’s landing we might look for a day in which there was some historical rapport between black and white Australians – although that could be hard to find. Maybe we should thnk about May 27, the day of the 1967 referendum that finally included indigenous people in the census. Or, for the symbolism of it, August 16, when in 1975 Gough Whitlam poured sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hands to mark the return of Aboriginal land.

What’s required is some basic recognition that there was already a group of people living on this continent when the colonists arrived, and that afterwards life would never be the same again. There’s no going back, and no point in wallowing in guilt or resentment, but a small, symbolic gesture might save a lot of civil unrest and ideological polarisation in the years to come. Can a new date be any more of a burden than the now obligatory, and often empty, ritual of acknowledging elders – past, present and future – at every official occasion? If there are six speakers each one might insist on going through the same rigamarole, which may have begun as a way of raising consciousness but when overdone sounds like mere hypocrisy.

Personally I don’t have any burning resentment of 26 January, but then I’m not indigenous. On the other hand, I can’t see much value in holding on to a date that will always be accused of sending the wrong messages and celebrating a colonial legacy that looks increasingly shabby with every passing year. If we take Scummo at his word, 26 January wasn’t “too flash” for most of the convicts on board the First Fleet either, so if the day doesn’t work for indigenous Australians or the majority of voyagers, it seems we’re basically celebrating the triumph of British imperial thinking. So what’s new?