It’s late morning on the day after Australia Day, 2007. I probably did more this week to celebrate Australia Day than I’ve ever done in the past, having attended a few official functions, as well as yesterday’s activities in Hyde Park, The Rocks and last night’s Darling Harbour Fireworks.
It was actually the first time I’d been to the Darling Harbour Fireworks, having previously avoided them, believing they’d be far too crowded for my liking to attend. But no, they weren’t. Darling Harbour easily holds 150,000 people without too much discomfort. Regrettably, however, Darling Harbour doesn’t cope well with 150,000 people leaving at about the same time.
While waiting for the fireworks to begin, I got to chatting with an older couple visiting from The Channel Islands. They were clearly unaware of the significance of Australia Day and had a number of questions for me such as “Do you get the day off”, and “Are these all your popular songs”, a reference to the music being played in the fireworks countdown. It was clear to me the mixture of well known tracks by “Hunters & Collectors”, “INXS”, “Split Enz” could only have been programmed by a forty-year old man, so I explained to her, “Yes, but only from a very narrow piece of Australian musical history”. It wasn’t until the fireworks themselves that we heard anything even remotely contemporary. “It’s funny”, she said, “because I don’t know any of them”. Nor did most of the audience who were, by and large, not forty year old men.
And then as the National Anthem began to play she asked me another question, “Don’t you sing the national anthem?”. I’d actually noticed I was the only person in our area singing along, something I put down to large tourist numbers, rather than anything else. I felt my own embarassment though when they launched into the mysterious second verse, which I explained to her most Australians didn’t know the words to. At that point I decided one of my resolutions for 2007 would be to learn the second verse of Advance Australia Fair .
I was quite conscious yesterday of notions of national identity and pride, having spent the day with Tony, a member of ABBAMAIL visiting from Sweden. Wearing an Australian flag hat, Tony seemed to enjoy the day immensely, as we visited Hyde Park, The Rocks , The Wharves and, of course, for a couple of beers at Opera Bar. There were times when I felt a little of the cultural cringe, as various people declared Australia the best country in the world. The woman next to us as Darling Harbour said, “It’s a little parochial isn’t it?” Yes, I said, “Australia is a great country, but there are great other countries too”.
The display of nationalism seemed stronger than ever yesterday with many thousands of people draping themselves in the flag. I noticed a few lone figures – and yes, they were all by themselves – wearing T-shirts which declared, “If you don’t love Australia, leave”, which worried me. And there was something I saw out of the bus window where a group of older men, wearing Australian flags, who seemed to be taunting a group of young Asian women. But by and large these incidents seemed to be fairly isolated, and it’s hard to know whether it’s a new and growing phenomenon or not.
Clearly notions of national identity have been in the minds of many lately following those stupid comments by the Sheikh. I try to believe he’s just like Fred Nile was thirty years ago, with his every utterance – no matter how out of touch they are – reported by a naive media. For years, the Reverend Fred would appear at Mardi Gras and the media would assiduously report his comments about abomination, Leviticus and the like, until eventually they just lost interest. The same with Pauline. Hopefully it’s all just part of the history cycle, not something more serious.
In contrast to the over-the-top jingo-istic and flag-waving elements of Australian nationalism, I thought Thursday’s Australia Day lunch was a smart, sophisticated way of acknowledging the holiday and our notions of national identity. It was the first time I’d attended the Official Lunch for Australia Day, and so had little idea of what to expect. The company was good, the food was good, and the entertainment was great. Some of the performances – including David Campbell’s version of “The Forgotten Years”, Tim Friedman/Richard Clapton’s version of “Best Years Of My Life” and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s “Moth” – were all really tremendous.
Former NSW Treasurer, and now NSW Australia Day Chairman, Michael Egan told a wonderful anecdote about his First Fleet ancestry. One of his convict ancestors, apparently, carried the first NSW Governor, Arthur Phillip on his shoulders, as the First Fleet came to shore in 1788, with Michael Egan declaring “I used to tell former Premier, Bob Carr, I wasn’t the first member of my family to carry the weight of NSW on his shoulders”.
Speaking of which, the current NSW Premier, Morris Iemma also gave a fairly powerful and convincing speech in which he argued his views about the idea of multiculturalism within Australian national identity. Without wishing to oversimplify the essence of his argument, he seemed to be saying “multiculturalism” (as we’ve come to know it) is transition stage in which migrants are politely introduced into their new country. He was at pains to point out, he’s not an advocate of assimilation, but of the idea that Australian identity is constantly evolving and being influenced by waves of immigration, and that it’s all about remembering the past, but looking forward.
On a much lighter note, there was was the launch of the Australia Post “Legends” stamp series, acknowledging some of the most influential figures in Australian horse-racing. HG Nelson introduced the likes of Johnny Tapp and Bart Cummings to a very welcoming audience of 1,500 people.
Also this week, I went to the Australia Day Lecture, held Tuesday night at the Conservatorium of Music, given by Kim Williams, Foxtel’s CEO. It was an excellent speech, well illustrated with sound and video, in which he explained how he believed notions of Australian identity were inextricably linked with the media.
In our young nation – and I refer here to the time since political federation in 1901 – the role of film, radio and television in the development of that contemporary identity is more prominent than for nations with longer inherited histories which inevitably drive different outcomes. We, as the national anthem says, are ‘young and free’ – more open to the impact of film and TV than older societies.
Evidence of this has continued through the week in the way in which the media has both influenced, and been used, to advance notions of Australian identity. With fears of racial violence, the organisers of the Big Day Out, had asked people this week not to bring Australian flags to the event. In a typically Australian way, people responded by taking as many flags as possible.
I’m still a little tired from a full week of activities. I have no major plans for the weekend except for going to see a preview screening of “The Last King of Scotland”, the new film about Idi Amin. I’ll probably also go to the gym later this afternoon. So hopefully, just a relaxing weekend.
Mind you, it’s a warm day outside, though not outrageously hot. But the wind has picked up, and I have that “oh no, it’s gonna be a bushfire day” feeling.