As the debate continues over whether Australia Day should be celebrated on January 26, it's time we take a look at the politics of some unresolved issues swirling around the holiday – namely, the republic and reconciliation. Here's why Australia Day survives, despite revealing a nation’s rifts and wounds.
Wendy McCarthy checked anxiously for signs of rain when she went to bed the night before Australia Day in 1988. A senior manager with the Australian Bicentennial Authority, McCarthy was staying at a hotel in The Rocks, Sydney, so she could wake up close to the action the following day.
McCarthy rose early to what sounded like rain. Fearing the worst, she rushed to the window. But the sound that had alarmed her was not rain. It was thousands of Australian feet, shuffling in their sneakers and thongs to the biggest party the country had ever seen. “It was my moment to weep with relief,” she reflected in her memoir. “Everyone had decided to be there.”
Not quite everyone perhaps, but Sydney Harbour was soon teeming with activity; of spectator craft, but also of tall ships and First Fleet re-enactment vessels, one of them famously bearing a Coca-Cola logo on its sails. Crowds lined the shores – some slept overnight in caves to get a nice possie – and millions more watched on television around the nation.
While Australia Day is an occasion for barbecues, concerts and fireworks, as well as the display of flags that no one has any use for at other times, it has never been as spectacular since.
As a public holiday, it marks the boundary between the summer break – even for those who have long since returned to work – and the rest of the year.
For students, it announces the return to the world of uniforms, teachers, classes and books. For most of us, the normal balance (or imbalance) of work and leisure asserts its authority, even as we still swelter in blistering heat.
Australia Day is, among other things, a seasonal festival, like May Day is to the northern spring. Many, perhaps most, Australians are no more likely to reflect deeply on its historical significance than maypole dancers are inclined to ponder phallic symbolism. Some would have difficulty naming the historical event that Australia Day commemorates, the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. If pressed, they might tell you it was when Captain Cook turned up at Botany Bay.
It has long had its critics. In 1938, the year of the sesquicentenary of settlement, the Aborigines Progressive Association declared it a Day of Mourning and Protest. In the lead-up to the Bicentenary, Aboriginal activists embraced the slogan “White Australia has a Black History”. They said January 26, 1788, was a day of invasion.