Thursday, January 26, 2006

Happy(?) Australia Day

I'm all for holidays, but Australia Day makes me uncomfortable.

Greeting cards, BBQs, fireworks, self-congratulation.

It's so... patriotic. I'm not sure whether my aversion to that concept comes from too many years of living in Germany (where patriotism -- or even admitting to liking your country = nationalism = Nazi ideology), or whether it's my New Zealand heritage telling me the only thing it's okay to take national pride in is rugby.

I actually heard an Australian yesterday (in a prepared speech, no less) refer to the arrival of Captain Cook as "setting this lucky country on the path to its modern glory." I guess he just conveniently forgot about how that arrival also set the country on the path to massacres, dispossession, a stolen generation, and the loss of hundreds of languages and cultures. Oh yeah, and the hardships of convict life. And bankrupt farmers who were deceived into thinking this land would accept cool-climate, rain-thirsty crops.

I know that every country has its problems and its black spots in history. I too would prefer not to look too closely at what my ancestors got up to. New Zealand is far from perfect on its race relations record.

But take, for example, our most militant Maori activists. What do they do? Terrorist attacks? Violent protests?
No. They take the government to court.
Because we have a country in which they can.

And I believe that the reason why we have a country in which they can is because there is public awareness of the wrongs that have been done. There is widespread acceptance for the fact that these wrongs need to be redressed. And every year on February 6th , we hold our national day, lest we forget.

If I think that Australia Day is overly patriotic, the NZ equivalent, Waitangi day, probably goes too far in the opposite direction. It is (by an accident of history) aptly named: Waitangi is a place name, but literally means the waters of sorrow. It is a day where the Pakeha* get to indulge in an orgy of guilt and regret, instead of the mild niggling feeling we have during the rest of the year. It is a day of Maori protest and Pakeha shame, and it is entirely appropriate to have a day set aside for this. But it would be better for us all to balance it by also having a day for celebrating the good things about New Zealand and the progress we have made as a multi-cultural society.

And I would feel happier if Australia's "Sorry Day" (yes, they do have one), were, like Australia Day, an official public holiday; if people knew the date of it; and if it served to mark regret for not only the stolen generation, but for the other wrongs done to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia as well.

Deep down I suspect that focusing only on the evil done in a country's history, while one-sided, is a sign that the country is further along the road to being a healthier society than one that focuses only on the good. But then again, maybe it's just that I would like to think of my country as better than its neighbours. Which, hey! is exactly the sort of patriotism I despise. So I'm going to whisper this final sentence very quietly: Could it be that what makes me uncomfortable about Australia Day is that it speaks to nationalistic feelings I try to pretend I don't have?

So, um, happy Australia Day, mate.

* Pakeha = white fella(s).

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1 Comment:

Lucy said...

greeting cards? ick.
Having to explain the day to foreigners always makes me uncomfortable. I have to make a point of saying that it's also known as Invasion Day to the indigenous population. I know the national museum got into trouble for being too anti-british; maybe all the ills are still being blamed on people we're pretending weren't Australian yet. It would be good to have an official Sorry Day, but we're still waiting for the idiotic government to actually say sorry...
(sorry for the late comment, I just found your blog via shrinkykitten and am reading archives)