As we are packing up to go back to the States, Australians are preparing for Australia Day. Australians are ambivalent about Australia Day. It is hard not to see this ambivalence as a metaphor for Australian national identity as a whole.
On January 26, 1788 the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour. These were the convicts and their keepers who started Australia. These were the Europeans who displaced the Aborigines.
For a long time, Australians were ambivalent about the "convict stain" and thus reluctant to treat the First Fleet as the founders of the nation. As I read it, this ambivalence about the convict past lasted exactly as long as Australia thought of itself as primarily British -- that is, until the mid-1960s. Since then, multi-generation Aussies are proud to claim a convict ancestor -- and are not likely to think of themselves as British in the same measure. Australia Day has grown as a national holiday in conjunction with this change in sentiment about national origins.
For aboriginal rights activists (of whatever ethnic origin) January 26 is "invasion day." Just yesterday Mick Dodson, an aboriginal activist, was named Australian of the Year, an announcement timed to coincide with Australia Day. Dodson said he was pleased with the honor, and proud to be an Australian -- but he objected to Australia Day as a holiday.
Australia Day is most popular, I think, as the long weekend holiday that ends summer. There is a commercial on television now. A concerned teacher meets with a boy and his father. The teacher reads from the boy's essay on what Australia Day means: "Australia Day means more time for cricket." The boy smiles, hopefully. The teacher frowns at the boy, then looks meaningfully at the father, as if to say "teach him the true meaning of our national holiday." The father nods, knowing his duty. As they leave the school, the father says to the son "You should have mentioned the tennis, too."
I think Australia Day will be revamped, over the coming generation, as a patriotic holiday. ANZAC Day will remain the core ceremony of the civil religion here for the foreseeable future. But Australia also needs a forward-looking, celebratory national holiday in its civil religion calendar, to balance the somber, sacrifice-honoring holiday of the ANZACs. The key problem, I think, will be figuring out how to include Aborigines -- which, as I have previously remarked, is only the touchiest issue of all in Australian national identity. Still, the nation needs its holidays if it is to be a nation as an imagined community. And Australia Day is an excellent foundation for a national holiday.
Besides, it is a great time to have an end-of-summer celebration.