Don't pick the scab of meaning from our national holidays

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While on holiday this year I was musing on Australia Day and the penumbra of discontent that surrounds it. I was staying at a house overlooking the beach and the mouth of a tidal creek, an Aboriginal midden close by. The first Australians who for millennia gathered here to eat have long since been driven away.

Beach at Gerroa, NSWThe news was full of anger and suffering — bomb blasts in Turkey, plaintive appeals for humanity on Manus Island, refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, an ill-tempered and ominous transition to power in the United States, unceasing bombings and deaths in Syria, and the harrowing of the Rohinga in Myanmar.

And in Australia, constant sniping at minority groups, including Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers and young offenders. A cacophony of calculation, hatred and neglect.

The beach scene could not have been more different. Red and blue umbrellas like mushrooms and pavilions dot the beach. Families mark out their square of sand. Grandparents and young parents introduce their babies to the sea, watch their young children play in the waves, take somnolent part in games and beach cricket and soccer open to all comers, attend to the discipline of sun hats and cream, and look on as their older children and friends master the waves and explore the subtleties of friendship.

It is a festival, a celebration of love, spontaneity, of connection and play, oblivious of the people who for millennia had here gathered mussels and shellfish and eaten plentifully.

The enjoyment of the holidays did not cancel out or soften the mayhem, muddle and malice of the public world and the people whose lives and happiness are so destroyed by them.

It held in mind the images of death and diminishment, but set them on a canvas of thanksgiving for the ways in which kindness and humanity are embodied in people's lives and are passed on, for the strength and delicacy of relationships that we take for granted, and for the gift of a beach holiday that is an impossible dream for so many Australians, and would be unimaginable for others who associate beaches with death and incarceration.

At the beach it seemed natural simultaneously to honour the Indigenous Australians who had for so long gathered happily to eat together, to acknowledge the invasion and occupation of their lands that had wiped them out, and to feel shame at the continuing marginalisation of Indigenous Australians today.

 

"National days invite us to allow these good things to measure the prejudice, gross inequality and violence in our society and the brutal self-interest in our dealings with other nations."

 

It seemed natural also to be grateful for the gift that this beach and its history are to Australians today, and to accept our responsibility to address the consequences that the arrival of the first fleet had for the first Australians.

More than this, the nurturing and tender relationships embodied on the beach provided a standard by which to measure the things that make news: the public relationships displayed in the dealings of nations, between nations, between competing groups in society, between politicians, and between antagonists in social media. The richness of the one reveal the poverty of the other.

These reflections bear on the celebration of the Australia Day holiday. The controversies about it usually focus on 'Australia', and so ask legitimate questions about on which day it should be celebrated: the anniversary of the landing of the first fleet, seen either as the beginning of British occupation or of Indigenous destruction, or on another day that unites all Australians.

The deeper questions, however, focus on 'holiday', and so about how we celebrate any national holidays, and particularly those that commemorate events in our history. In the Australian cultural myth, holidays are times for forgetting — good Aussies bury the claims the world, history and the family make on us under a pile of tinnies shared with mates. We rip the scab of meaning off the interchangeable cans of Australia Day, Anzac Day, Labour Day and the Queen's Birthday and get down to the serious business of wiping ourselves out. Or we fix a single label of meaning on the day and declare those who demur to be Un-Australian.

National days, however, are more properly about memory and attentiveness to all the relationships that compose Australia. They invite us to notice and be thankful for and to celebrate the tenderness of our domestic relationships and the general amiability of our relationships with strangers and our international relationships.

They invite us also to allow these good things to measure the prejudice, gross inequality and violence in our society and the brutal self-interest in our dealings with other nations. They also measure the historical relationships that have shaped Australia, and particularly the violence, dispossession and subsequent discrimination and neglect in our relationships with Indigenous Australians.

Whenever it is celebrated Australia Day should evoke memories that make us thankful and memories that make us ashamed. Its celebration should also encourage us to reform what has been bent.

 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australia Day


 

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Existing comments

And what you see depends on where you sit. That special place between the land and the sea profoundly celebrates difference. The current seriously depressing narratives about where we are as purveyed in the media and the inclusive nurturing beach are choices for our attention. It seems the challenge is balancing responsibility to nurture ourselves, to restore ourselves so as to avoid the damage of depression and on the other hand doing or pretending to do good to others.
Michael D. Breen | 24 January 2017


We can never unknown what we now know. We need to act accordingly. A wise and compassionate reflection as always and a call to be attentive to relationships in an honest way seems most apt this public holiday. Thank you Andrew Hamilton, SJ.
Christina Coombe | 25 January 2017


One thing often forgotten in remembering 1788 is that most people involved with the arrival of the First Fleet didn't want to come here. That feeling was shared by many involuntary migrants since, including waves of convicts and child deportees. I certainly felt that way lying in a top bunk in a ship in Bombay Harbour after my father had decided to terminate his employment with the new independent Indian government and not to be repatriated to England. I had absolutely no idea what we were coming to. Arrival in Australia and settling in were certainly salutary experiences. The Australia of the late 50s and early 60s is now really history. Has Australia become a better place? An interesting question. I would say Yes and No. What do we celebrate? Being alive in an essentially decent, free society where there is real hope. The 'beach experience' is something deep and primeval: it generally brings out the best in people. Hope and Joy are really important. Thank God there is much of both in this country. The future is really in the hands of the Australian people - all of us.
Edward Fido | 26 January 2017


Thank you Andy.
Susan O'Brien | 26 January 2017


Thanks, Andrew, for a very thoughtful reflection on how our differences need to be worked out to celebrate what we can by appreciating both sides of the debate.
Gerard Rummery | 26 January 2017


Seems to me it's very much a matter of 'point of view.' Anyone so privileged as to have a beachside holiday with family or mates is unlikely to share the misgivings of those who are unable to do so. That the latter include many indigenous Australians is a matter of not simply historical neglect about which to be whimsical. Until the gaps in healthcare, education, housing and employment are closed, Australians with a conscience must support the moves to focus attention on these matters - including a move to rename 26 January. Australia Day for some is Invasion Day for others.
Ern Azzopardi | 26 January 2017


Thank you Andy for this beautiful, inclusive reflection on Australia Day. I'm reading Bruce Pascoe's "Convincing Ground" which has changed and deepened my thoughts about the complexity of our national day. I believe you are both on the same track of reminding us to discover and not forget our past and what it means for us now. Regards Rosemary
Rosemary Livingstone | 26 January 2017


Interesting that you should choose the perspective of a beach setting to reflect upon the meaning of Australia Day Andrew. At the beach everyone shares a common ideal as they settle themselves on the sand that naturally lends itself to all ages for pure enjoyment. We share this gift of nature willingly with total strangers who are often from distant lands, but when the British first landed on our beach they came with one intention: accretion! They planted a flag on these shores and claimed sovereignty for a very distant land. I say change the date for Australia Day celebrations and simultaneously declare Indigenous peoples in our Constitution.
Trish Martin | 26 January 2017


Thank you, Andrew Hamilton. I can't remember ever reading such a spot-on insightful commentary on the vexed question of Australia Day. There speaks the voice of reason, sanity and compassion.
Julie Kearney | 26 January 2017


The celebrations of our community are centred at the beach. There's a market, food vans and cars everywhere. It's a scene of peace, health and more than a little thankfulness. Yesterday I bought a copy of Stan Grant's Quarterly Essay "The Australian Dream: Blood, History and Becoming". And to begin it a quote from W.E.H. Stanner "The Dreaming and The Market are mutually exclusive."
Pam | 26 January 2017


I haven't heard any one of my friends ever discuss the changing of Australia Day. The change is suggested obviously by malcontents, who never stop carping at Australians and what they want us to be. Concerning indigenous people, it is time, they put the past away like the descendants of the first prisoners in the Settlement have done; they should also be standing on their own two feet and stop asking for handouts which have so often been misappropriated. Everyone who lives in this wonderful country should respect our values and not try to change them into something they either left behind or practised in another culture.
Name | 26 January 2017


When a federal nation continues to celebrate its national day on a date belonging exclusively to one of the six federated colonies and having nothing to do with the process of federation, and treats any alternative as unfit to be mentioned in polite company, that's what I call political correctness gone mad. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (Imp.) 1900 was passed by the British Parliament on 5 July, signed by Queen Victoria on 9 July, and proclaimed by her on 17 September. That's three candidates already.
Gavin R. Putland | 26 January 2017


Hi Andrew...what a lovely article about the Beach. And all your articles would or should make my Uncle (Pat....of same surname) proud. Not that my sister and I really heard any words of wisdom or even compassion come out of his mouth, but those were the times and around us he just like to joke, be laid back and drink beer. Still...he was a proud Jesuit of a proud Order and it is so heartening to read the caring and compassionate words of a modern day Jesuit in your magazine. Best wishes Brenda
Brenda McEvoy | 26 January 2017


Thank you Andrew for your insightful reflection. I am a Canberrean, but drove with my overseas born wife, to Sydney's southwest to met with a friend from Lebanon, whom we have not seen for a while. While we ate our lunch in an Lebanese owned alfresco café in the main street, I reflected on the diversity of the ethnic origins of the people passing us. While overwhelmingly of Middle Eastern ethnicity, there where people from Africa , Asia and southern and northern Europe in the people I observed. Many were young, most likely Australian born. I could sense the harmony while there. It certainly made me reflect not just on Australia Day, but also the Queen's Birthday, both reflecting our British heritage. Yet we are basically an amalgam of many cultures, not really recognised in our national holidays. Maybe we do need uniquely Aussie holidays to celebrate our achievements, but what would they celebrate?
g | 27 January 2017


A beach looks beautiful because of all that water which you can't drink.
Roy Chen Yee | 27 January 2017


January 26 will always be the anniversary of January 26, 1788 - so changing the date is merely avoiding reality. It would be a bit like trying to scrap Good Friday because it was such a tragic and sad day. Australia is soulless and illegitimate without Aboriginal people and their history. culture and struggle and recognition today. Just as Christianity is nothing without the cross. Maybe we should follow the lead of countries of the americas (mainly Latin America) who celebrate "Dia de la Raza" - the arrival of Columbus - which is now a celebration of indigenous culture and recognition of the past. Fireworks on Australia Day to me is a bit like eating lobster on Good Friday!
AURELIUS | 27 January 2017


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