By George Venturini
Australia’s official “history is an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knave, and soldiers, mostly fools.” - With apologies to Ambrose Bierce, American writer, 1842-1914.
The end of January is the hottest time of the year in Australia. And almost every year, 26 January, Australia’s National Day, is a very hot day.
National Day is a fairly recent institution, and in the distance of time seems to be meant to legitimise occupation and conquest. There is nothing of the solemnity with which a Declaration of Independence from a tyrannical foreign king, the beginning at the Bastille of a Revolution, or the coming of the October Revolution are usually remembered.
The Day commemorates, almost correctly, the arrival of the occupiers of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove, more or less on 26 January 1788, the subsequent taking possession on 7 February 1788 of the newly found Colony of New South Wales, and the vesting of all land in the reigning monarch George III by Captain Arthur Phillip, Commander of the Fleet. Phillip was in charge of the surviving 580 male convicts, 247 female convicts and 150 male marines. Between 1788 and 1868, 134,261 males and 24,568 females would be transported.
Equally uncertain is how and when the Day - and seriatim Anniversary Day, Foundation Day, and Australian Natives’ Association Day - transformed into Australia Day for all the components of the present Commonwealth of Australia.
Over what there is no disagreement is that the Colony was established as a prison for people unwanted by the English criminal system, and who could not be transported to America after the rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies there.
The occupation has been since referred to as a ‘settlement’, clearly a misnomer: a settlement is only possible among free agents. Such distinction is not anti-historical; it is disregarded only by the occupiers because they conveniently developed the notion that the Indigenous People who have a history of no less than 60,000 years could not be regarded as personae juris, but were quickly categorised as parts of the environment - with the land legally defined until twenty years ago as terra nullius - belonging to no one. The occupation was therefore a settlement with no one ! Pragmatism would not be the sole gift from the Hanoverian king.
The first celebration of the landing of his troops was held in 1791, and by 1804, 26 January was referred to as First Landing Day or Foundation Day.
Four years later, to the day, the Colony was otherwise busy: a festering dispute between ‘real estate traders’, merchants and the New South Wales Corps who were in charge of rum, came to an end which resulted in a military dictatorship, properly named ‘the Rum Rebellion’. Another of His Majesty’s gift will be, and remain, alcoholism.
Sedated somewhat by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the Colony prepared itself for new celebrations on 26 January 1818, officially designated for the first time as a public holiday. Foundation Day, as it was known at the time, continued to be officially celebrated in New South Wales, and became connected with water sporting events. This tradition was extended to the new colonies, although each of them had their own commemoration for their founding, on different days. Agreement on the same day was found for 26 January 1888, except for South Australia. There were further discrepancies until 1935, when all states celebrated Australia Day on 26 January. The Commonwealth and state governments finally agreed on a common day in 1946. By this time Australia Day had come to mean sport competitions, community barbeques, festivals, outdoor concerts and fireworks.
1946 saw the formation of the Australia Day Celebrations Committee for the purpose of increasing public awareness of the significance of Australia Day. This was the precursor to the establishment of the National Australia Day Committee in Canberra in 1979, which then became the National Australia Day Council in 1984.
Events such as the Indigenous rights movement on the 150th anniversary of the invasion in 1938, and the bicentenary celebrations of 1988 also contributed to the development of Australia Day as a public holiday across the whole nation.
Finally, as late as 1994, Australia Day celebrations were formally recognised as an annual event.
There are some civic aspects to the Day, but rarely do they go beyond the granting of Australian citizenship, to some 13,700 from 144 countries in 2012 - with the attendant condition of British subjectship, and speeches by the Governor-General of the Commonwealth and the Prime Minister. Only the former is provided for in the Constitution, the latter is not even mentioned there. This adds some new facets to Australia: an institutional emphasis on militarism - hence each State has a Governor. As will be seen, there are other characteristics of what ‘makes an Australian’: exclusivism is one - which is expressed in the de rigueur public declaration that this is the greatest country in the world; a pervasive feeling that corruption of the Rum Corps has remained and transmogrified into modern expressions; an anti-intellectualism which pervades public life, discourse and education - the latter intended as the gaining of a meal-ticket under form of employment unit certificates; a populism, which is the anti-politics politics of non-thinkers; and an attitude to life which can only be qualified as philistinism, by which one would see that ‘things of the spirit’ are really of no substantial value or importance. A more recent ‘acquisition’ is multiculturalism, a difficult concept to explain because it contains all possible elements for the life of a ‘good society’ - and their opposite.
It is safe to say that an overwhelming majority of Australians would, particularly if asked by a stranger, or a pollster ‘recognise Australia’s Indigenous People and culture’, or reply that ‘it is important to recognise the cultural diversity of the nation’. This is easy to talk about, and this is where the effort stops. Despite the strong attendance at Australia Day events - mainly welcomed by a general sense of hedonism - and despite an outwardly ‘nice’ disposition towards the recognition of Indigenous Australians, the date of the celebrations remains a source of challenge and, for the few who care, of national embarrassment.
Rarely, and particularly so on Australia Day, ordinary Australians consider how for Indigenous People Australia Day has become a symbol for adverse effects caused by the original occupation. Indigenous People showed this quite forcefully in 1938, when the Australia Day celebrations were accompanied by an Aboriginal Day of Mourning. Fifty years later, a large gathering of Indigenous People in Sydney held an ‘Invasion Day’ commemoration, which emphasised the loss of their culture. More optimistically, the anniversary is also known as ‘Survival Day’ and marked by events such as the Survival Day concert first held in Sydney in 1992, celebrating that the Indigenous People and their culture have not been completely wiped out.
In response, official celebrations have tried to include Indigenous People, holding ceremonies such as the Woggan-ma-gule ceremony. Woggan-ma-gule is the meeting of the waters; it commemorates the past and celebrates the future. In earlier times, ancestral creation spirits were revered and honoured as the safe keepers of the land. Through song and dance, fusing traditional rituals and contemporary music, the participants awaken, cleanse and honour the spirits of past inhabitants. Once honoured, the spirits continue to protect and watch over the land. The ceremony is performed early in the morning in what are now The Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney overlooking Farm Cove. This area is considered an important meeting and ceremonial site to the Gadigal People who once lived around the harbour. That is the place of the Darug Nation and of the Gadigal and neighbouring clans: Dharawal, Yuin, Gurik, Wonaroo and Awabakal - all of them by now largely ‘dispersed’.
Several attempts have been made and, at various times, to consider the possibility of moving Australia Day to a different date. Several reasons have been advanced to support such a change. Thus, for instance, it has been repeated throughout the years that the current date, celebrating the foundation of the Colony of New South Wales, can be seen as lacking national significance.
The date can be perceived as being intrinsically connected to Australia’s convict past, celebrating Britain’s driving ashore Australia’s first ‘white’ subjects in chains, and that on a day designed for granting Australian citizenship.
At present, the Day fails to encompass all Australians, alienating most members of the Indigenous community. Connected to this is the suggestion that moving the date would be seen as a significant symbolic act. From a more practical point, it has been observed that Australia Day falls during the school holidays, limiting the ability of schools to engage children in the event.
Apart from the difficulty of reaching an agreement which would satisfy the Commonwealth and all the States, there have been other suggestions.
Constitution Day, 9 July, has been suggested as a possible alternative, commemorating the day in 1900 when Queen Victoria gave her assent to the Constitution of Australia.
The anniversary of the 1967 referendum to amend the constitutional status of Indigenous People, 27 May, has also been suggested as a possible alternative.
3 March was proposed, as the anniversary of the Australia Act 1986 coming in to effect. The Australia Act 1986 is the name given to a pair of separate but related pieces of legislation - one an Act of the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia, the other an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. While each Act gives its short title as ‘Australia Act 1986’, in Australia they are referred to, respectively, as the Australia Act 1986 (Cth.) and the Australia Act 1986 (U.K.). The Australia Act eliminated the remaining possibilities for the United Kingdom to legislate with effect in Australia, for the United Kingdom to be involved in Australian government, and for an appeal from any Australian court to a British court. These nearly identical Acts were passed by the two parliaments, to come into effect simultaneously, and significantly because of lingering uncertainty as to which of the two parliaments had the ultimate authority to do so.
Wattle Day on 1 September has been proposed as a unifying national patriotic holiday by the Wattle Day Association, as an alternative date for Australia Day. There is a degree of historical precedent to the suggestion: Wattle Day was celebrated as Australia Day in South Australia for many years, though from 1915 to 1918, Australia Day was celebrated there on 26 July, placing it close to Wattle Day.
This revolving nomenclature for what should be a truly ‘national’ Day largely sums up the difficulties of present day Australia. If there is a place in the world where Henry Ford’s attitude to history-as-bunk can be experienced that place is Australia. One of the days to verify that is Australia Day.
The day presents all the elements which concurred in the formation of the place. One fundamental component of the story is this: the Indigenous People, who spoke no English, had no monarch to represent the State, and did not share the Protestant Ethic, were declared uncivilised non-humans and soon made the object of systematic extermination; they - rightly - now remember Australia Day as Survival Day. Deep down in the psyche of modern ‘real’ Australians the Indigenous People are the characteristic Orwellian ‘unperson’. Their past is treated as ‘unhistory’ by the majority, which takes hardly any interest in its own past - and that is another element. The ‘unhistory’ of ‘unpersons’ - wrote Noam Chomsky - is illuminated by the fate of anniversaries.
Such excision of a part of the population - admittedly now a small part: some 2.5 per cent of the total population are from Indigenous People, and there are also some thirty thousand Torres Strait Islanders, with a further twenty thousand people identifying as of both Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander origin - was made possible by the adoption of the ‘White Australia’ policy and the acceptance of a trade agreement amongst the original British Colonies which passes as the Australian Constitution.
The origins of the ‘White Australia’ policy can be traced to the 1850s and 1860s. White miners’ resentment towards industrious Chinese diggers culminated in violence on the Buckland River in Victoria in 1857 and at Lambing Flat in New South Wales in 1861. The governments of these two colonies introduced restrictions on Chinese immigration.
Later, it was the turn of hard-working labourers from the South Sea Islands of the Pacific - known as Kanakas - black-birded between 1847 and 1904 and brought to work in northern Queensland. Workers in the south of the colony became vehemently opposed to all forms of immigration which might threaten their jobs; particularly by ‘non-white’ people who they thought would accept a lower standard of living and work for lower wages.
Some influential Queenslanders feared that the colony could be excluded from the long-forthcoming federation if the Kanaka trade did not cease. Leading politicians from New South Wales and Victoria warned that there would be no place for 'Asiatics' or 'coloureds' in the Australia of the future.
Once federation was accomplished, in 1901, the new federal parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which received royal assent on 23 December 1901. Designed to end the employment of Pacific Islanders, it was euphemistically described as an Act “to place certain restrictions on immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited immigrants.” [Emphasis added] Removal was the word used at the time for deportation. The process lasted two years.
The Act prohibited from immigration those considered to be insane, anyone likely to become a charge upon the public or upon any public or charitable institution. It also included any person suffering from an infectious or contagious disease “of a loathsome or dangerous character.” The Act grouped together prostitutes, criminals and anyone under a contract or agreement to perform manual labour within Australia - with some limited exceptions.
There was one further odious and ‘flexible’ restriction: the Act provided that “Any person who when asked to do so by an officer fails to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of the officer a passage of fifty words in length in an European language directed by the officer” would not be admitted. Often such tests were conducted in a language with which the applicant was not familiar and had been nominated by an immigration officer.
Historically, the Australian Labor Party has been a party of racism. From the ‘White Australia’ policy to the ongoing genocide of Indigenous People, Labor has been at the forefront of attacks on ‘non-whites’ - broadly speaking of ‘the other’. In 1992 the Keating Labor Government introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers in an attempt to shore up the racist working class vote and divert attention away from its neo-liberal policies which transferred wealth from labour to capital. It worked in the short term but helped lay the foundations for the Howard (Conservative) Government’s ascendancy by making racist ideas ‘respectable’. In 2011 Prime Minister Gillard proposed outsourcing the torture of refugees to Malaysia in an attempt to keep some of the racist working class vote and divert attention away for its neo-liberal policies which are transferring wealth from labour to capital. Those who are allowed in are still placed in ‘detention camps’. The words ‘detention camps’ are a misnomer. These are concentration camps, of the kind which were first developed by the Spaniards in 1896 in Cuba, and expanded by the British during the Boer war. Hitler gave them a new and even more shocking dimension.
Labor could have shown leadership by explaining to the Australian people why the tiny trickle of refugees coming to Australia, as compared with other countries, are to be welcomed and supported - not vilified.
The fact is that, from the beginning of Australia, and with severe measures, the implementation of the 'White Australia' policy was warmly applauded in most sections of the community.
In 1919 a well-practiced turn-coat politician, former Labor but then leader of the Nationalists and Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, hailed the Act it as “the greatest thing we have achieved.”
In 1934 the Act was employed to attempt to keep out of Australia Egon Erwin Kisch, a Jewish anti-Fascist, by administering to him a test in Scottish Gaelic. The advice had come from a foremost ‘Conservative’ Attorney General, Robert Gordon Menzies; it combined a set of isms: anti-intellectualism and philistinism in the service of anti-Communism, of which Menzies was a shameless exploiter-practitioner. The High Court found that Scottish Gaelic was not a European language within the meaning of the Act. The Australian Government sought help from the British, attempted to use ‘police information’ on Kisch, but failed, had to compromise, to pay legal costs and to agree to Kisch’s departure on his own terms some months later. The case remained as one of the many abuses of the law by Australian governments of both Westminster-approved colours.
After Japan’s aggression in 1941 Prime Minister John Curtin - a Labor leader this time - reinforced the ‘philosophy’ of the ‘White Australia’ policy, saying: “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race.” Britishness would remains for some time still, racism will go on to present days.
During the second world war many ‘non-white’ refugees entered Australia. Most left voluntarily at the end of the war, but many had married Australians and wanted to stay. Arthur Calwell, another Labor leader and then the first immigration minister, sought to deport them, arousing much protest.
It was for the new, ‘Conservative’ Minister Harold Holt’s decision in 1949 to allow 800 non-European refugees to stay, and Japanese war brides to be admitted. It was the first, exceptional and pragmatic step towards a semblance of non-discriminatory immigration policy.
The first really major step occurred in 1957 when non-Europeans who could show that they had lawfully resided fifteen years in Australia were allowed to become Australian citizens and - whether they liked or not - British subjects.
The controversial migration test was abolished only in 1958 by the revised Migration Act 1958 which introduced a simpler system of entry permits. The revised Act avoided references to questions of race. Ministerial instructions were something else. They proceeded ever so cautiously with casuistic distinctions. First exceptions were made for much needed “distinguished and highly qualified Asians.” In March 1966 an announcement came to the effect that “applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia.” New lines were drawn to permit “temporary resident” non-Europeans, who were not required to leave Australia, to become permanent residents and citizens after five years, not fifteen - the same as for Europeans. The government scaled down the demand for “distinguished and highly qualified Asians” to “well qualified” non-Europeans, increasing the number of non-Europeans allowed to immigrate to a “somewhat greater than previously.” There would be ‘policy’ in vagueness.
It was only the Whitlam Labor Government which completely disposed of the ‘White Australia’ policy and took three decisive steps in removing the consideration of ‘race’ as an element for admission to Australia.
For the purpose, the new Parliament was able to pass legislation providing that all migrants, of whatever origin, would be eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of permanent residence, new policy instructions would be issued to overseas posts totally to disregard race as a factor in the selection of migrants and, most importantly, all international agreements relating to immigration and race were ratified. Until then there had been two entities on Earth: Australia and the rest.
The reform of the Whitlam Government survived the outsing by the Royal Coup of November 1975.
New policies were introduced with the coming of a parallel interest in multiculturalism: they included three-year rolling programmes to replace the annual immigration plans of the past, a renewed commitment to apply immigration policy without racial discrimination - spurred on by the international treaties ratified by the Whitlam Government, a more consistent and structured approach to migrant selection and an emphasis on attracting people who would represent a positive gain to Australia.
The present position with regard to immigration is suffering from the hostility shared between Government and Opposition to ‘unauthorised admission seekers’ - a ‘polite’ way of referring to the refusal to admit on ground of heartlessness, xenophobia, religious prejudice and others certain persons seeking refuge in Australia. Mandatory detention has set in train an ever worsening response to refugees. As at 29 February 2012 there were 4944 persons, of whom 319 women and 496 children ( This is of course despite the proclamation that the government of the present 23 million residents - who are proudly advertised as “45 per cent born overseas, coming from 250 ancestries, and speaking some 200 languages, in addition to indigenous languages” does not discriminate on grounds of ethnicity, culture, religion or language, ‘provided that they meet the criteria set out in law’ - and that as defined from time to time. And there is the rub.
A diffused sense of ‘unhistory’ spills over from the attitude to Indigenous People to the search for an Australian identity. This is not an overwhelming concern of general interest: the average Australian is satisfied with common places such as the fair go, which is supposed to preside over social policy and its development and mateship, that almost indefinable relationship amongst ‘real’ Australians - which anyway is exclusivist in nature because to be shared only among men.
The average Australian would not have a clue about the process by which s/he is governed and in particular about the Constitution.
Assuming that s/he is willing and able so to articulate the thought, s/he would say in the same breath that Australia is the ‘greatest country’ and its Constitution ‘the very best’ in the world. Exclusivism there meets nationalism and both are supported by anti-intellectualism and an always ill-disguised tinge of racism. Of course, s/he has hardly read the Constitution: not at primary or secondary school, where it goes unmentioned, and not even at university - except perhaps in the social science fields, where the most important section, at least in law schools, is section 92. That section goes to the very essence and purpose of the Constitution: to guarantee that “trade, commerce, and intercourse among the States shall be absolutely free.” The precise meaning of this expression is the subject of a considerable, vexed body of judicial interpretation.
In fact, the Constitution is really no more than a slightly glorified trade agreement, written in the most uninspiring and pedestrian way imaginable, almost exclusively for the scope of removing tariffs between the various colonies-would-be-states.
It does matter that the Constitution is not even the outcome of the Parliament of Australia. The Australian Constitution is contained in an Act of the British Parliament, which in 1990 was the only body able to make laws for the whole of Australia. A law made by the British Parliament was the only legal way to establish a system of government for the whole of Australia.
Five of the existing colonies agreed “to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.”, as the preamble to the British Parliament Act of 9 July 1990 containing the Australian Constitution recites.
Some of the proponents to moving Australia Day to 1 January to recognise ‘the coming into existence’ of Australia that day have obviously not read, or do not care about, the document. It makes clear that as from 1 January 1901 Australia would be a self-governing colony, not an independent state. (art. 8 of the same Act)
Australia was to be no more than a super colony, largely for business reasons.
Should there be any doubt, a reading of art. 3 of the Act of 1900 clearly provides that “the Queen may, at any time ... appoint a Governor-General for the Commonwealth.”
The obsession with maintaining “the purity of the British race” had pervaded the Constitutional debates. In 1898, one of major contributors, Edmund Barton, the future first Prime Minister, expressed the prevailing view that the proposed sec. 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution would be necessary to enable the Commonwealth “to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races who are in the Commonwealth.”
The section is still in operation - and more of this further on.
It is often said that the Constitution is enriched by tacit agreements and conventions. Such archaic way of regulating public affairs in unworthy of a modern country. Legitimistic reliance on ‘conventions’ cost Mr. Whitlam and the Australian people their elected government in November 1975.
Some silent provisions are actually beyond an honest reading of the document. It is hard to give any comforting meaning to sec. 61 of the Constitution which provides that “The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, ...” Section 62 provides that “There shall be a Federal Executive Council to advise the Governor-General in the government of the Commonwealth, and the members of the Council shall be chosen and summoned by the Governor-General and sworn as Executive Councillors, and shall hold office during his pleasure.”
No mention is made of a Prime Minister in Chapter 2 of the Constitution which deals with “The Executive Government.” The Governor-General is the prime minister.
The other sections confer on the Governor-General the power to appoint officers as ministers of state, in such number as the Governor-General decides, to fix the salaries of such ministers, to appoint civil servants and to command “the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth as the [English monarch]’s representative.”
In a system such as this the monarch is the absolute ruler, the Governor-General its representative and the residual colony is run through a maze of conventions conferring mostly unwritten, limited powers, save for some which are the subject of ‘reserve’ and hidden powers in the hands of the Governor-General. If W. S. Gilbert had written a libretto for this farce it would have challenged any Arthur Sullivan to set it to music.
Designed further to rivet Australian to foreign interests, the Constitution for the enlarged colony was provided with an amendment sec. 128 calculated to make any meaningful change impossible: a “majority of the States [and] a majority of the electors” are necessary for the alteration of the Constitution. Thus far only 8 referenda out of 44 to amend the Constitution have been successful.
The Indigenous ‘Unpeople’ who survived the invasion and the attempts at extermination continue to be the victims of that antiquated federal agreement. Despite the almost heroic effort of 27 May 1967 which recognised them as citizens of Australia, their subjection is still contained in provisions such as sec. 51 (xxvi), which provides that “The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: the people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.”
Other odious provisions have been removed, but this remains. One should understand the feeling of utter despair, mixed with defiance, which led to the erection of the Indigenous ‘tent embassy’ in front of Old Parliament House on 26 January 1972, at a time when a decaying ‘Conservative’ regime seemed to come to an end, but when such end would come was by no means certain.
That tent, which had revamped a national conversation about Indigenous rights, turned forty on 26 January 2012. Governments, beginning with that of Billy McMahon, who briefly preceded Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister, have never quite managed to shut it down or belittle it as a symbol of resistance.
On 26 January 2012 the Indigenous ‘Unpeople’ were to begin a three-day corroboree in front of Old Parliament House, and draw a big crowd representing scores of languages, Indigenous nations and communities.
In the eye of the ‘real’ Australians who care about it, the ‘tent embassy’ is an anarchic, messy site. It does not quite ‘fit’ Walter Burley Griffin’s - the American architect who won the competition for the design of Canberra - notion of the ‘ordered civic space’. “Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.” wrote Vladimir Nabokov.
On 26 January 2012 Australia, once again, celebrated its national day.
Australia Day is, of course - now more than ever - an artificial fabrication designed by governments, the corporate world, media, Australia Day Councils and smug ‘established’ Anglo-Australians to ensure that people forget the real history, in a conflation of triumphalism, racism, trumped-up nationalism, and overwhelming hypocrisy. And they would count on that concedingly, in the knowledge and reliance that people would mark the day in different, meaningless ways. Even citizenship has been trivialised; government literature intended to inform the applicants went on sloganeering: “Australian citizenship is a privilege, not a right” - all diminished by reference to Donald Bradman, the famous cricketer and Phar Lap, the famous champion thorough racehorse being the subject of serious questions and being made part of a naked iconography. The ‘old hands’ would count on the fact that succeeding waves of new-comers would be ignorant or otherwise oblivious of the original invasion. Most would not want to know. They did not do it - hence they were not responsible. The irony of being a self-proclaimed multi-cultural society is that none of the migrants arrived in Australia in pursuit of culture. They arrived to improve themselves, and make money if possible. They may be willing to share a future, but they are unwilling to identify with the past.
Most of the celebrants - ‘old’ and ‘new’ - opted for the traditional pursuits of barbecue and beach, or park on the couch for a long day watching tennis. Others received their citizenship at ceremonies around the country, while a growing number of the locally born wrapped themselves - literally - in the flag, in a manner which was unknown to the Australia of even twenty years ago.
Curiously, a recent study has found that there is a relationship between flag ostentation and racist views: people who fly Australian flags on their cars have more racist views than the rest of the population. Forty-three per cent of flag flyers also support the now-defunct ‘White Australia’ policy and fifty-six per cent fear that the ‘Australian culture’ is under threat, researchers from the University of Western Australia concluded. They had surveyed 513 revellers among the 300,000 gathered to watch the Australia Day fireworks in Perth in 2011. One in five of those surveyed said they had attached Australian flags to their cars. Those flying the flags expressed more racist opinions on a number of issues.
The research leader said that the common factor among the people surveyed who do fly flags was fear. The majority of those polled - whether they flew Australian flags or not - had negative views of Indigenous People, Muslim Australians and asylum seekers. Of course, there were flag flyers who did not express racist views, but they were few and far between. Australia Day was seen in Western Australia as an occasion for a big fireworks display. And everywhere else there were ‘Australian’ flags - on bikinis, board shorts, towels, hats, umbrellas, beach shelters, painted faces and fake tattoos.
One does not need a long memory to relive the spectre of Pauline Hanson wrapped in the flag and campaigning - very successfully: about one million votes ! in 1996 and a seat in the Senate, using the ‘Australian’ flag as a symbol of ugly jingoism, and the uglier episode of the Cronulla race riots in December 2005, just outside Sydney proper, when a mob of hooligans wrapped themselves in Australian flags, called themselves “Sons of Anzacs” and rounded on people of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’. There is hope - no more than that - that Cronulla was an aberration.
Flag waving is often associated with stickers on cars exhorting people to love the flag - or leave Australia. It is a slightly modified version with which some new-comers who had not become used to the mores of the place would be exhorted “To go back where you came from.” Only this time the admonition is harsher, witness the bumper sticker with a picture of the flag which reads: “Support it. Or fuck off.” Too many cars are seen sporting both the flag and violent slogans such as: “Fuck off, we are full”, “If you don't love it, leave”. They are an intimation to new migrants, often to signify that they are unwelcome, but also to others to admonish that dissent or even complaint against the ‘national culture’ - whatever that is supposed to mean - will not be tolerated.
The trouble is that not everyone likes the flag because of the British Union Jack, which is a symbol of colonial oppression to most Australians and all Indigenous People, and of the Irish and, increasingly it seems, of the Scots. For ‘real’ Australians there is a clear message: Australian-ness is linked to British ancestry. Not long ago a group of distinguished Australians, and among them Prof. Tim Flannery, Prof. Patrick McGorry and Prof. Gustav Nossal, called for a new flag as a symbol of a newly found “sovereign, independent, mature” status. But another trouble is that many of the young people who may be wearing a cap with a flag, or a flag on very shorts, or as a shawl, or as a foulard might never have heard of those distinguished persons.
One enduring aspect of what is called ‘Australian culture’ is its tendency to anti-intellectualism and its veneration of physical achievement. It would be almost impossible to find among young people an interest in the great contributors to the formation and understanding of what is somewhat loosely called “the Australian identity.” Works such as Manning Clark’s, A history of Australia, even the lighter John Douglas Pringle’s Australian accent, or the scholarly Russel Ward’s The Australian legend, or even the journalistic Donald Horne’s The lucky country would be lost on modern Australian youth. Sportsmen, and to a lesser extent sportswomen, are an unusually large contingent in the temple of Australian ‘heroes’. Many great writers, artists, politicians and scientists were born in Australia, but have gone almost unrecognised or forgotten. They have taken second place to footballers, cricketers, swimmers and tennis players. This disregard for the country’s intellectual heritage can even be detected in the place one would least expect it: the universities.
There is something fundamentally disturbing about Australia Day. It does not, like other countries’ national days, mark the birth of a nation, but the establishment of a penal colony. Accordingly, Australia would not exist as a political entity for more than a century after the arrival of the Captain Phillips, and the prevailing mythology would have it that nothing really happened, Australia did not truly arrive on the world stage until 25 April 1915, when the Anzacs went ashore at Gallipoli.
Temperatures were running high on 26 January 2012. One had been well warned about the dangers of binge-drinking in the middle of a heat-weave, but less attention was focussed on the emotional heat which flares up on all sides of debate on perhaps the most controversial day on the Australian calendar.
Warning that every year alcohol incidents skyrocket on Australia Day had been re-issued. Researchers had repeated that heavy drinking is the Australian way for many, and more young people are involved in harmful alcohol-related incidents, such as assaults and car accidents, on Australia Day than on any other public holiday.
For people aged less than 25 years Australia Day is the No.1 holiday requiring emergency medical attention for drunkenness, with more than double the usual number of ambulance call-outs and a 50 per cent increase in emergency department presentations. Young people treated for injuries due to assaults also double on Australia Day, according to the findings of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, a statutory authority with an independent chair and board of governance with vast experience in health, sport, the arts, research and communication. VicHealth works in partnership with organisations, communities and individuals to promote good health and prevent ill-health. A study conducted with Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre, which was established in 1994 to provide leadership to the alcohol and drug field, also in Victoria, has again concluded that alcohol advertising during major sporting events in the lead-up to Australia Day, including the tennis and cricket, exposed thousands of young people to pro-drinking messages, “reinforcing that the Australian way is to drink, and drink a lot, during summer.”
The report showed the unfortunate consequences of that ‘Australian way’ so-called ‘culture’: drinking excessively to the point where people harm themselves and others on major occasions. “It is a bit embarrassing and a bit sad that many … spend Australia Day filled with alcohol rather than national pride.” it lamented, while “Others are spending their Australia Day dealing with drunken idiots in hospitals or police lock-ups, or drunk drivers on our roads.”
The results of the study highlighted a need to stop promotions which encourage people to buy cheap alcohol in bulk. Liquor laws need to be revamped to give priority to public health, and adults could help minimise harm on Australia Day in particular by setting a good example of responsible alcohol consumption.
The study on alcohol had been preceded by one which showed that Australians are the biggest users of marijuana and amphetamine, reaching the highest use than any region in the world, according to the findings from a series of papers published early in January in the leading medical journal The Lancet and examining global drug use and law enforcement.
The study, conducted by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, documents that Australians are the world’s biggest pot-heads. In 2009 in Oceania, for which data only from Australia and New Zealand was available, 9.3 to 14.8 per cent of people had used marijuana in the previous year, compared with 1.2 to 2.5 per cent in Asia, which had the lowest use. Between 2 and 2.8 per cent used amphetamines such as speed, compared with between 0.2 to 1.4 per cent in Asia. The Americas averaged about 7 per cent for marijuana use, with North America on 10.7 per cent.
It would only be the resilience and the strength, the honesty and the earth-strength of the Indigenous People which would enable them to survive, notwithstanding every conceivable danger placed in their paths by the ‘whites’ who, still, by their actions, seem to rely on a specious superiority.
So early in the morning of 26 January, perhaps not the 2,000 who for opposite purposes they were said to be, Indigenous People and their friends gathered at the Australian National University for a welcome and some talks before marching up to Parliament House and then on to the ‘tent embassy’ at Old Parliament House.
There was an air of celebration, but there were also expressions of anger, directed at both Government and Opposition, so-called Labor and so-called Liberal, who throughout the years since the Royal Coup of November 1975 had done very little, and that little under pressure from court actions, and otherwise nothing but re-invaded the Northern Territory; nothing to end poverty and disease among the Indigenous People; nothing really to remedy the awesome life expectancy gap; nothing about the quest for sovereignty and compensation; and little and slowly about land rights.
The protesters, who were marking the ‘tent embassy’s fortieth anniversary, reacted with fury after the leader of the Opposition Mr. Abbott, asked about it at a Sydney news conference earlier in the day, had been reported as saying that it was now time to “move on.”
The crowd was told over a loudspeaker that Mr. Abbott wanted to shut down the ‘embassy’. It was incorrect and wrong.
Later on the Opposition would eagerly seize on the involvement of one of Prime Minister Gillard’s media advisers. He resigned after admitting that on 26 January he had contacted a local unionist who was with people from the ‘tent embassy’ at the time, advising her of Mr. Abbott’s remarks earlier that day about “moving on” and suggesting that Indigenous representatives go where Mr. Abbott was, a nearby restaurant. The apparent intention was to have the Opposition Leader confronted and heckled by ‘tent embassy’ supporters - nothing more.
A small group of protesters proceeded to the restaurant where Prime Minister Gillard and the Leader of the Opposition Mr. Abbott had just finished presenting the inaugural National Emergency Medals, instituted by the Queen upon request of Prime Minister Gillard in 2011, to people who had distinguished themselves in “extraordinary acts or services during a national emergency.” The protesters were no more than 100 in a group which surrounded the building for some 20 minutes, some of the protesters pummelling the glass walls with their hands.
The police warned that the glass could break and wanted the Prime Minister out of the restaurant. The Prime Minister’s federal police escort panicked and decided to rush her from the event. As they did she stumbled and they dragged her to a car.
People inside the restaurant claim to have overheard a conversation between Ms. Gillard and her security team. The bodyguards were concerned that the glass walls could cave in under the force of the protesters’ banging. “We feel that the situation is deteriorating and can’t stay much longer.” the leader of the security team said. “What about Mr. Abbott? Where have you got him?” Ms. Gillard asked. “We’d better help him through, too, hadn’t we?” she added.
The protesters were angry at Mr. Abbott’s comment earlier in the day when he was asked if the ‘tent embassy’ was “still relevant or should it move ?”. He had replied: “I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and, yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.” [Emphasis added] Those are cautious words, as one would expect from an astute politician who refined his art of not-answering questions when studying for the priesthood and would use the adverb which systematically accompanies any ‘statement’ uttered in Australia by people who have an eye on a possible retreat: ‘probably’. The use of the word is quite characteristic of the s-language as spoken in Australia: “I guess”, “probably” - and always in the conditional mode, just in case.
The following day Mr. Abbott had an opportunity to clarify his statement. He said that he did not resile from comments that he made on Australia Day on the ongoing relevance of the ‘tent embassy’, and that he had been misunderstood. Mr. Abbott claimed to have been misrepresented in what the demonstrators were told. In his doorstop interview the day before, he had been asked whether the ‘tent embassy’ was “still relevant or should it move.” He had replied: “I can understand why the tent embassy was established all those years ago. I think a lot has changed for the better since then. We had the historic apology just a few years ago … We had the proposal which is currently for national consideration to recognise indigenous people in the constitution. I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and yes, I think a lot has changed since then and I think it probably is time to move on from that.”
Mr. Abbott did not say at any point that the ‘tent embassy’ itself should be removed. Not surprisingly, he said that he did not want it removed. As a matter of fact, the former ‘Labor’ New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, and now the Foreign Minister in the Gillard Government, had no such inhibitions, writing on his blog that the ‘tent embassy’ “says nothing to anyone and should have been quietly packed up years ago.”
On 27 January 2012 Mr. Carr added: “Suddenly we are presented with a demand for ‘Aboriginal sovereignty’ - which can only mean separatism - which nobody has defined and which, on principle, 99 percent of Australians would oppose and a majority of Aborigines oppose.”
On that day a small group of protesters continued their rage, burning an Australian flag on the front steps of Parliament House and persisted in demanding ‘sovereignty’.
‘Corroboree for sovereignty’ had been the theme for the three-day gathering at the ‘tent embassy’. Asked what was meant for ’sovereignty’, one of the leading organisers - in the language of his clan, ‘a custodian of the Law’ - explained: “Aboriginal Sovereignty is not about power over others. We don’t want to be like the system, to govern over men (Government) and end up sitting around a table like white-fellas. What the elders want is for there to be true protocol in the Law. There has been a breaking of the three laws of refraining from lying, stealing and killing, given to us by the three brothers. The shame is every community has broken these Laws. The key to sovereignty is maintaining our culture. Traditional life is about the custodian’s role of caretakers of the rocky outcrops, desert plains and scared mystical waterways that belong to the people of the Seven Wonders of the World.” [Emphasis added] There is a very strong doubt whether the 97.5 per cent majority, historically the successors of those who poisoned “uncivilised” people of a “primitive nature” with flour laced with cyanide, pushed families from cliffs, fenced off the parts of the land most rich with traditional foods and fresh water, forcibly removed people from their homelands to clear the land, stole children from their kin or made it unlawful or impossible to practice their own culture, would be prepared to stop, think about and understand the mystical significance of that language.
Yes, of course, there has been, of recent, perfunctory recognition of the ‘original inhabitants’. But the practice of the past, which is conveniently intended to be given as forgotten, is called in modern terms ‘genocide’. And for that there continues to be no adequate reparation and compensation. The rest is philistinism and pure wind.
On 30 January 2012 the Murdoch flag-carrier, The Australian, editorialised that the Australia Day incident “should cause the wider political Left to reconsider their tactics.” The newspaper hailed Mr. Carr for denouncing the “bankruptcy of old Left culture - paint the placards, stoke the anger and abuse, confront the police, produce scuffles ... create a lovely day out for the local anarchists and Trots.” These “squalid tactics,” The Australian concluded, “demand a full investigation.”
Mr. Tom Calma, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Chair of the 10 person Indigenous Steering Committee charged with establishing the new national representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, warning that the scenes outside the restaurant might set back reconciliation for some people, and appealing for the Government and Opposition to depoliticise Indigenous issues, said: “In every social indicator out there and economic indicator, we are a long way behind.”
Meanwhile, the ‘Conservative’ website Menzies House launched an online petition to close the ‘tent embassy’, which it said was “a divisive attempt to create two Australias based on people’s race and prevents true reconciliation.”
Perhaps Mr. Abbott was misrepresented. Perhaps he could have been more careful with words. Unfortunately, he has the gift of sloganeering and in that he is very successful - and memorable. All this, combined with a penchant for equivocation landed him on the wrong side of the issue. “I made the point that a lot has happened in 40 years.” Mr. Abbott said. “We have moved on from the issues of 40 years ago which caused the Aboriginal tent embassy to be set up.” But that did not mean the ‘tent embassy’ should be moved or torn down, he said: “I never said that and I don’t think that.”
The simple matter is that there has been some progress during the past forty years. The more realistic issue is that there are some apparently intractable problems still to be solved, let alone faced.
When the ‘tent embassy’ was set up outside Parliament in 1972, it was established by four Indigenous persons planting a beach umbrella in the turf. They were protesting the refusal of a moribund ‘Conservative’ government to recognise Indigenous land rights claims. The execrable doctrine of terra nullius - whereby the entire mass of Gondwanaland-the Great Southern Land-New Holland belonged to no one, presumably because the Indigenous People were part of the fauna of the place - was the foundation of Anglo-Australian law. The artfully construed legal fiction made seizure of Australia legal according to the law of the invaders.
As it developed, the ‘tent embassy’ served as a political awakening and education for many Indigenous leaders. It resisted all government attempts to remove it, and all the complaints of those who considered it ‘an eyesore’. Before the end of the year 1972 things began to change. The Whitlam Government recognised Aboriginal land rights on federal lands. Since then, state governments have legislated to permit - albeit very, very slowly - such claims on un-alienated land within their boundaries.
The most graphic and significant event for land rights followed the long legal fight waged by the indomitable Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo. Mr. Mabo had been appalled to find out that his ancestral garden on Murray Island was not protected by his law - it belonged to the Crown. He fought his case all the way to the High Court. On 21 January 1992 Mr. Mabo died. Five months later, on 3 June 1992, the High Court announced its historic decision, overturning the doctrine of terra nullius.
The High Court went beyond Mabo’s garden: it recognised that the whole of Australia, had belonged to Indigenous People and Torres Strait Islanders all along. It declared that though it might be legally unviable for Indigenous People to claim all privately owned land, they had a right to un-alienated land and were the traditional owners of all of Australia.
The Court stated a principle, but there were bigger problems to be solved - and most have remained there.
Five years later, in 1997, the Bringing them home report, concerning stolen generations of kidnapped and de-tribalised Indigenous children, was tabled in Parliament. There followed much debate, but demand for adequate remedies and compensation fell on deaf ears during the eleven years of the morally deaf Howard Government.
Fifteen years after, Indigenous deaths in custody continue. Indigenous life expectancy is still almost twenty years behind that of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous People account for nearly 25 per cent of gaol inmates though they are only 2.5 per cent of the population. Fewer than one in 10 urban Indigenous persons achieves a university degree, and fewer than 3 per cent in remote areas.
Indigenous People and Torres Straits Islanders had to wait until February 2008 for Prime Minister Rudd to offer a broad apology to all of them and to the Stolen Generations for their “profound grief, suffering and loss” in a carefully worded statement which was greeted by a standing ovation.
Thousands gathered in Canberra to watch the historic apology, which was televised around the nation and shown at special outdoor settings in remote Indigenous communities. Many of those watching had personal experience of the forcible removal of people, and there were emotional scenes as the apology was delivered. The emotion was overwhelming, the rhetoric was high, but there was no mention of compensation which ordinarily, under the law of civilised countries, follows the admission of tortuous behaviour.
Anger and resentment may not be justifiable, perhaps - but people practiced in the business of deception should understand the feeling of the victims and their cynical view that the ‘white man’ is a con.
Five years ago began what was even more insensitively called ‘the intervention’ in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. That was prompted by another report, this time by the almost self-anointing title Little children are sacred, which dealt with child abuse in some ‘re-settlements’ in the Territory. It was done in the heavy way, which almost symbolises an ‘Australia way’ of facing social problems: the sudden arrival of troops and police contingents - clearly seen as ‘re-occupation’, and an insufficient number of health workers.
Introduced by the Howard Government during the lead-up to the November 2007 federal election, The Northern Territory National Emergency Response was a combination of changes to welfare provisions, law enforcement, land tenure and other measures, most of them in violation of international treaties and obligations, and allegedly to meet claims of rampant child sexual abuse and neglect.
In the end, the Australian government's ‘response’ implemented only two out of ninety-seven of the report’s recommendations. The ‘response’ was harshly criticised by the then Labor Opposition, but received bipartisan parliamentary support. The Rudd/Gillard Government did make some adjustments to its implementation. The current Prime Minister Julia Gillard continues to support certain aspects of the ‘response’. It was simply another move from paternalism to maternalism.
The 97.5 per cent majority stood by while governments suspended the right of people in Indigenous communities to be free from racial discrimination, so that the government could send troops into Aboriginal communities without their consent, reclaim land and implement paternalistic policies such as welfare quarantining.
United Nations expert racism panels have complained for years that the Northern Territory ‘intervention’ continues to discriminate on the basis of race and restricts Indigenous People’s rights to land, property, social security, adequate standards of living, cultural development, work and legal remedies. One is certainly not confident as to what impression young new comers from Africa or from mainland Asia - Indian students, for instance - should have in view of a continuous experiencing of racial targeting, harassment and slurs.
It is early in the piece to predict what will happen to the latest report: Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Peoples in the Constitution.
On 8 November 2010 Prime Minister Gillard announced the establishment of an expert panel for the purpose. The panel was given terms of reference on 23 December. The panel delivered its report to the Prime Minister on 19 January 2012.
The main recommendations are for the repeal of sec. 25 of the Constitution, which carries Provisions as to races disqualified from voting, and of sec. 26 (xxvi) concerning the legislative powers of the Commonwealth Parliament in relation to The people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws; and the insertion of new sec. 51A on recognition in the Constitution; sec. 116A on prohibition of racial discrimination; and sec. 127A on recognition of languages.
Mr. Abbott had referred to these reforms in his statement of clarification of what he had said. This may give the impression that there is firm ‘bipartisan’ commitment to put forward a recommendation for a referendum. But the matter has already been trivialised and abused by irresponsible commentators on the alleged ‘violence’ of 26 January and the many voices of Murdochracy have already claimed that the ‘violence’ may frustrate any success of a referendum. In any event, the Gillard Government, so solicitous in proposing the new study, has not seen fit to set down a date for the referendum - firm or approximate. The issue of constitutional recognition is now likely to be pushed beyond the election, its future dependent upon a probable Abbott government being willing to restart the process - maybe.
It is quite on the cards that the Indigenous and Torres Straits Islander Peoples could be taken once more from one enticement to another swindling.
People who rely on an unwritten tradition must be provided with a long memory. They have a long history.
The major part of the other 97.5 per cent can afford approximation, because in the general indifference the people of ‘unhistory’ can be made to believe anything, anytime - for a time, anyway.
What history is studied by that majority disregards all the mistakes, all the atrocious abuses of 224 years of occupation. That ‘history’ is surrounded by a continuous fog, and to top it all up, by way of short cut, the story of Australia seems to have begun at Gallipoli. That is, with the same rhetoric which triumphs at the celebration of Anzac Day.
A.N.Z.A.C. was originally an acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, then assembling in Egypt, which was used by the clerks of Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood, a senior officer in Britain’s pre-1914 Indian Army, who had been appointed in December 1914 to the command of the Australian and New Zealand forces - so much for independence. General Birdwood resided at his headquarters in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, Egypt.
At a locality called ANZAC on the Dardanelles Peninsula, Australian and New Zealand troops landed on 25 April 1915. They, along with other Commonwealth Forces, held ground against almost impossible odds for the next eight months, against a Turkish force determined to defend to the death their homeland. The British action planned to secure the heights overlooking the forts guarding the narrow straits at the entrance to the Sea of Marmora. The purpose was to silence them and allow the British and French Navies to proceed to then Constantinople and by a show of force convince the Turkish Government to capitulate and to come on the side of the Allies.
It was a bloody disaster which culminated with the usual ‘strategic’ retreat on 20 December 1925. The last British troops left on 9 January 1916.
The commemoration of that glorious defeat and the totally useless loss of almost 9,000 Australians is largely left to the Returned Services League of Australia.
The influence of the former Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, now simply R.S.L., is formidable. It comes from its founding days organising rituals for Anzac Day dawn services and march, and Remembrance Day commemorations, in an incandescent atmosphere of nationalism, chauvinism and jingoism. Needless to say, the League has a patron Queen Elisabeth II.
This sizeable pressure group may count on almost 200,000 members - only males, of course - in over 1,300 sub-branches. Initially, the role of the League became controversial as it banned women from attending the dawn service because of their wailing. In time, the rule was relaxed a bit. There are now over 5,500 women members organised in the League’s women’s auxiliary from almost 400 sub-branches. Still, R.S.L. men do not cry.
They are the custodians of the memory of “the battles which have changed Australia forever.” - as they would proudly say. Whether it be the hellish military folly of Gallipoli or the carnage at Fromelles, the R.S.L. is in charge.
The resulting broad historical picture is painted in colours which transform military history into the accepted history of Australia.
As the League proclaims, offering the ‘history of Anzac day’: “The date of the landing at ANZAC, the 25th April was chosen to be the day that would become our national day of commemoration. ... the date has become the day on which the nation remembers those who served and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in all the conflicts that Australia has participated up to the present day in the continuing struggle to preserve our freedoms in the attempt to rid the world of tyranny.” [Emphasis added]
A quick perusal may give an idea of the madness of it all. There is no record of any loss among the slightly more than twenty who made up the contingent fighting against the Maoris between 1845 and, approximately, 1863.
Nine lives were lost in supporting a request of apologies from the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad of Sudan for having murdered Major-General Charles George Gordon - on 26 January 1885.
In the Boer war, which lasted between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902, 589 colonial and post-colonial Australians lost their life. If South Africa had to be preserved to the English because it was laden with gold and studded with diamonds, Chinese had to be kept down to insure that they continued smoking all the opium that British ships exported to them from Burma, which had been occupied in 1885. So, between 6 August 1900 and 25 April 1901, Australians were engaged in suppressing the Boxer Revolution in China: 6 lives were lost.
Then came the Great War for Civilisation, which for Australia began on 4 August 1914 and ended with the armistice of 11 November 1918. But Australians went on to fight for ‘White Russia’. Officially the government was not involved but, while no Australian units were engaged in operations there, many individuals did subsequently become involved through service with the British Army during the North Russia Campaign. They served in a variety of roles, including as advisors to ‘White Russian’ units as part of the North Russian Expeditionary Force. About 150 men of the Australian Imperial Force, who were still in England awaiting repatriation following the end of the first world war, also enlisted as infantry in the North Russia Relief Force, where they were involved in a number of sharp battles.
It can hardly be explained, except for the duplicity of Prime Minister William Morris Hughes, how the Royal Australian Navy was involved too, with the destroyer HMAS Swan briefly engaged in an intelligence gathering mission in the Black Sea in late-1918 on behalf of the British military mission then advising the ‘White Russian’ General Anton Denikin. Several Australians acted as advisers with this mission as well, while several more served as advisers with Admiral Aleksandr Holchak in Siberia.
Later, another small group of Australian volunteers also served in a number of operations in Mesopotamia as part of the Dunsterforce and the Malleson Mission, although these missions were mainly aimed at preventing Turkish access to the Middle East and India, and they also did little fighting.
Total Australian casualties included 10 killed and 40 wounded, with most deaths being from disease during the Mesopotamian operations.
Officially the Great War ended for Australia on 31 March 1921, with the other ‘strategic’ retreat from Russia. The total loss of lives between 1914 and 1921 was 61,520.
Then came the second world war, begun on 3 September 1939 and concluded - for Australia anyway - only on 30 June 1947, with the loss of 39,653 lives.
Intervention in the ‘Malayan Emergency’ lasted between 16 June 1948 and 31 July 1960. Thirty-nine Australians lost their life.
Sixteen Australians died during the Indonesia ‘Confrontation’, between 24 December 1962 and 11 August 1966, and 2 died on war activities on the Malay Peninsula - 19 February 1964 to 11 August 1966.
The involvement on a lie by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in the Vietnam war cost 521 lives, lost between 3 August 1962 and 29 April 1975.
Two deaths occurred during the Thai conflict: 25 June 1965 to 31 August 1968, 1 Australian died in Somalia during hostilities which lasted between 20 October 1992 and 30 November 1994, and 2 died in what was known as East Timor in operations which lasted between 16 September 1999 and 18 August 2003.
Two deaths were recorded in the illegal invasion of Iraq, and 32 Australians lost their life, so far, in Afghanistan, where the invasion began on 11 October 2011.
The total of Australian casualties for war causes amounts to 102,734.
There is often reference to ‘the spirit of ANZAC’ with its human qualities of courage, mateship and sacrifice. Mateship is by definition possible only among men.
Last year in Adelaide, on the occasion of Australia Day, Prime Minister Gillard declared: “This Australia Day, mateship lives.”
No reflecting person, unless attempting to curry favour from a pressure group such as the R.S.L., could utter such words without blushing. It was no casual remark, for the Prime Minister went on: “On this Australia Day, I am calling on our nation to dedicate ourselves to continuing the spirit of mateship, to not letting go in the hard days of recovery and rebuilding to come.” and on “And on this Australia Day, I am calling on our nation to pursue with new determination the Aussie fair go, which, alongside mateship, defines the spirit of our nation.” [Emphasis added]
In that clash between reality and rhetoric could any talk of ‘Australian values’ be more hollow?
* * *
The time has long passed for Australians to develop a historically correct and truthful awareness of their past, identity and character, abandoning forever the shallow jingoistic parody one sees on such events as Australia Day. That may only come by embracing and reconciling with the Indigenous People and their culture in a true and meaningful way, but above all in a way that they understand and appreciate. With that goes a serious commitment to reparation for past tragedies. And that means cancelling any trace of racism and of its consequences. It may take time, but this must be done, not only for the Indigenous People but also for the young generations of new migrants, beginning with changing completely Australia’s attitude to asylum seekers. In welcoming rather than imprisoning them Australians would honour themselves.
In time Australians will have to reconsider the date for Australia Day, as well as - without forgetting them - honour the Anzac dead together with the others for whom already Remembrance Day exists: 11 November.
A national day could become that when the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Project began to operate. It was a gigantic, peaceful endeavour; it was extraordinarily important in Australia’s post-war economic and social development; it took 25 years to complete, between 1949 and 1974; it was tremendously expensive and, above all, it employed over 100,000 people from more than 30 countries in its construction, providing employment for many recently arrived immigrants; some seventy per cent were migrants, the remainder were ‘real’ Australians who welcomed them - in peace, solidarity and in the name of progress.
That date would give real meaning to Australia Day and, undoubtedly, could give real meaning to multiculturalism.
Passing provincial actors who cover themselves with the flag: Prime Minister Gillard who “loves it”; an ambitious would-be-successor such as Mr. Abbott who is a “big advocate of the current Australian flag”; State Premiers who bring within their name their sense of entitlement, such as the Premier of Victoria Ted Baillieu: “I love the flag, Australians love the flag. It’s not going to change.”; ‘knowledge challenged’ Victorian Leader of the Opposition for whom the flag “is a symbol of our history”; Governors-General and State Governors, whose first and foremost loyalty oath is to the Queen, will pass.
They are not even telling the truth, misrepresenting the wish of the Australian People: two out of three persons prefer a flag without the Union Jack.
As for Anzac Day, now artfully managed and marketed by official organisations of all kinds, it is for everyone to see that during the past thirty/forty years, at least, the last of the real Anzacs departed, the whole thing has become a circus, with speeches, flyovers, big screens showing collages of ‘military history’ - and all the better to be observed from a couch, guzzling beer.
Alcohol consumption is part of the tradition. Rum was provided at Gallipoli to the poorchrists who were about ‘to go over’. In their honour is now consumed in the tranquillity of one’s home or the noise of a public bar.
No offence is intended to the memory of the Anzacs in pointing out that their sacrifice was not a declaration of independence, that Australia was not born there and then, and that they were the victims more than the protagonists of that part of Australia’s imperial history which is now gone, along with the Empire. This duty of truth is long overdue to the memory all those lost in wars - all of the many Australian wars, to those who returned home, and above all to the new generations.
Yet, the news coming from the capital is not comforting: the bureaucrats of patriotism and most politicians of conventional colours are preparing a new-and-improved extravaganza for April 2015. An interdepartmental committee is working towards that. There is plenty of money, there will be guidance and support for a new show.
That will pass, too. Only then, perhaps, Australians will direct their collective mind to real problems which have been facing them from the beginning of Federation: a really representative democracy, an overdue re-organisation of the constitutional arrangement, and - to guarantee all that - a peaceful, reconciled, federal, secular republic.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, taught, administered, and advised on, law in four continents, ‘retiring’ in 1993 from Monash University. Author of eight books and about 100 articles and essays for learned periodicals and conferences, his latest work is THE LAST GREAT CAUSE – Volunteers from Australia and Emilia-Romagna in defence of the Spanish Republic, 1936-1939 (Search Foundation, Sydney 2010). Since his ‘retirement’ Dr. Venturini has been Senior Research Associate at Monash; he is also an Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University, Melbourne. firstname.lastname@example.org.