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Thursday, 26 January 2012

What can Australia celebrate on its national day?

Mary Lee, sufragette, 1821 - 1909
A country that ignores its history is a country that has lost its memory. Without a memory a man or woman cannot live. That goes for any man or woman. Imagine having no memory. My father died with Alzheimer's in March last year with, to all intents and purposes, no memory. If you had no memory how would you recognise your friends, your enemies? How would you do the simplest thing, like make a pot of coffee or clean your teeth? Without a memory you regress to an inflantlike state and, like an infant, you merely cry when you're hungry and laugh at teddy bears held up before you by your doting parents. In short, you lose the ability to care for yourself. You are dependent, helpless, and vulnerable.

When I see people on the street wearing Australian flags or with Australian flags attached to their cars I see vulnerable people. Like the man walking down the street yesterday wearing an Australian flag as a sarong. The man had long hair, down to between his shoulderblades, and he wore a slouch Australian bush hat. He also wore a black T-shirt with 'Australia' printed on it next to a depiction of the Southern Cross. When I saw him I felt a mixture of pity and revulsion. Here is a man who depends on overt expressions of patriotism in order to make sense of the world, I thought, and the belligerence attached to his patriotism makes it brittle, like a dare. Overt patriotism in Australia carries always with it an unmistakeable tone of racism, of exclusion, of a sense of entitlement explicitly denied to people whose only difference from ourselves is the place where they were born. This is ignoble and I want nothing to do with it.

So how should we view Australia Day? Perhaps there are things that can be celebrated, that we can justifiably be proud of? Proud of wherever in Australia we live. After all, you do not see cars emblazoned with patriotic signs in the countryside, but that doesn't mean people out in the bush have no feelings to call forth on the national day of celebration. I know that cars in the bush do not have Aussie flags attached to the cowlings of their mirrors because I was out in the bush recently during a 5000-km roadtrip to Adelaide and back.

I don't recall seeing flags around Adelaide either. But Adelaide has a special reason to be proud on Australia Day because the colony of South Australia amended its constitution in 1894 to enable women to vote. At federation, in 1901, the female franchise was extended to all Australian women. The pic attached to this post shows a bronze bust set up on North Terrace outside Government House in Adelaide to celebrate one of the activists associated with the female franchise in Australia.

South Australia was not the first place to allow women to vote. That credit belongs to New Zealand, then still a British colony, which had made the change a few years earlier. But Australia was the first sovereign nation where women could vote and stand for parliament. Why in these places and not, for example, in Europe or North America? I think it has to do with the fact that these places were still settler societies. In settler societies there are never enough women, for a start. But also, there was the recognition that the work done by women was absolutely essential to the continued prosperity of the colony. "Thank you," farming husbands might have said to their wives. "I work in the paddock all day. I cut down trees, lop branches, cart away logs, blow up the roots, put up fences, I plough, I sow, I harvest, I store away the grain." But that's not enough to live. You need food prepared to enable you to sleep at night, because you need sleep to enable you to work the next day. You have property in freehold, which implies inheritance, and inheritance implies children, and children imply a mother to concieve and birth and raise and care for them.

So here's a 'value' that Australians can rightly be proud of: equality. When we talk about Australia Day we talk about values. It's the same on ANZAC Day. In fact, surrounding the cenotaph here near where I live there are some big, black blocks of granite on which are fixed words made from cast metal. The words include 'courage and 'mateship'. I'm not sure I like blocks of granite telling me what to think and how to feel. The ideas expressed by the flying of Australian flags are big and blocky too. I recoil from them in revulsion. But celebrating equality is something that I can accept. After all, it is a universal value. Its roots go back even further than the date of Mary Lee's birth in 1821. It belongs to the Enlightenment project that also gave birth to the idea of Australia in the first place. But if we are to celebrate equality then we have to think about other forms of equality. Saying the word gives us license to improvise and discuss other alternatives, such as marriage equality. Perhaps we should fly the rainbow flag on Australia Day instead of the other one?

And while we're improvising let's take stock and remember the thousands of Aborigines who were still being hunted down and killed when Mary Lee finally achieved her stated goal of "leaving the world better for women than she found it". Our memory demands that we do so. Remembering the Indigenous fallen makes us think that their sacrifice should also be celebrated on ANZAC Day, too. Why not? The notion of equality is a rational one. And once you start really employing your memory and your reason there is no end to the things that you can achieve.

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