I remember in childhood that Australia Day’s highlight was the Sandy Bay Regatta, a prelude to the “greatest aquatic carnival in the southern hemisphere”, the Royal Hobart Regatta and the first ever public holiday (Regatta Day) two weeks later.
Reached first by the trolley-bus and then the family FJ Holden, it was a bucket and sand day, along with ice creams and watching the yachts. A citizenship ceremony around the point was reported in the next day’s paper, but we never saw it “live”.
Earlier this century a question on Melbourne trams asks, “What are you doing to celebrate Australia Day?”. In the former colony, which still prefers question marks to hand-on-the-heart patriotism (some Socceroos and a prime minister excepted) we aren’t sure. We do know that, like the Japanese who have turned many holidays into ‘happy Mondays’, we want the long weekend.
Nationalism, like sex and religion and the bucket and the spade, is still with us, despite the warnings about skin cancer and political diseases. Is it serious or is it about cricket and eccentric lamb marketing campaigns?
Australians alternate between two nationalisms. One was the older, relaxed view of not taking things too seriously. The other is what radical journalists in the 19th century would have called a “national drunk”, a country intoxicated with fantasies of nationalism. They mainly focus on sport (is ‘Oi Oi Oi’ the worse chant ever invented, or at least the dumbest?) but sometimes have oddities. I never use the term ‘unAustralian’, as it does not describe our diverse society. I make one exception – “hand-on-the-heart symbolism”. Leave that false gesture to the Americans, of north and south.
Australia now alternates between everyday nationalism – often in the cheery colours of green and gold – and a more intense nationalism. After decades of government financial support for national days (Australia Day, Anzac Day), sometimes Australians take things too seriously.
Except we have both more, and less, to celebrate. Australia has been the most successful country in face of the global financial crisis due to an effective government (even if it does not communicate well) and a Chinese market for raw materials. Yet, we have a stock market that has fallen unduly.
We have become a land of workaholics so we can’t celebrate the “land of the long weekend”. Things are so dire that there is now a government tourism campaign, “no leave no life”, to encourage Australians to take some of their leave and holiday in Australia.
With Australia Day, we have even lost the Australia Day Monday long weekend after Jeff “Scrooge” Kennett abolished it, and the day off eventually moved to 26 January.
Even more significantly, the lucky country, the country which prided itself on being more egalitarian and having a wider spread of people with good incomes, now has the greatest disparity between the rich and poor in the developed world. In the OECD, Australia – not the USA or Britain – is increasingly divided into a land of very rich and a larger population with less.
In fact, although we still have the great Australian salute to keep those flies away, we have not so much to celebrate. “Australia Day” at the tennis usually comes in the first week, as few Aussies play in the second week. But, perhaps a draw in the Adelaide Test, however unlikely, might allow this day to become more international. We could celebrate both Australia Day and India Day, which is also on 26 January, simultaneously!
Adjunct Professor Stephen Alomes is a contemporary cultural historian with RMIT’s Globalism Research Centre.