What to make of Australia Day?

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On Australia Day this year I was privileged to discuss the very idea of Australia Day with Professor Bruce Bradlap of the University of Wongollong Philosophy Department, over a few ice cold king browns, at his home in the RSL caravan park at Legend Beach.  Here is an extract of the conversation.

Sam:  Why has Australia Day become so big and loud in recent times?  I don’t remember it being a big deal when I was a child.

Bruce:  It is not just Australia Day.  The display of all types of national symbols and the expression of devotion to Austalia has grown and grown in the last 30 years.  Think of the playing of the national anthem.  In the 1970s, the national anthem would be played at football finals (but not always) and hardly anyone would stand up.  Now it is played at every big sporting event and everybody stands to attention and sings along.

Here is my take on what has changed.  Australia, and every democracy, is a collective project.  To survive and thrive the nation needs it citizens to make sacrifices – small sacrifices every day to maintain a civil society – and big sacrifices occassionally to defend the nation or recover from disasters.   Until relatively recently the shared experience of hardship gave Australians a strong collective sentiment.  The fear engendered by the Cold War and the shared suffering of WWII, the Great Depression, and especially the Great War, created a national cohesion and strong support for collective projects in Australia.

But after decades of peace and prosperity those traumatic events of the 20th century and earlier are a long way back in the rear vision mirror.  The parents of the baby boomers have moved on and Gen Y and Millenials have replaced them.   The parents of the baby boomers were the children of the Great War generation.  Shared suffering and the need to pull together was their lived experience.  They didn’t need to be demostrative about their love of Australia and their willingness to sacrifice for the nation.  They new when their time came they would go, and the same was largely true for the generation that followed them.

But the collectist spirit in Australia began to ebb in the 1980s after decades of peace and prosperity.  One expression of the reduced collectivist spirit in Australia was the privitsation of assets that had been collectively owned through governments.  The Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Qantas, TAA, electricity assets, etc. were sold off as part of the economic rationalism of the 1980s and 1990s.  But it was only possible because of the reduced importance given to collective projects and greater public emphasis on personal aspiration.

Sam:  Are you saying that devotion to Australia was less demonstrative 40 years ago because everyone understood that when big sacrifices were needed they would be made.

Bruce:  That’s right.  Every society has a continuous dialogue with itself, to create and reinforce its image of itself.  40 years ago we didn’t need to remind ourselves of our commitment to Australia with a big bash on Australia Day, but now we do.  It shows something of a loss of confidence in our commitment to Australia, which used to be so muted, and it is also orchestrated by the State.  So much of the organisation of Australia Day celebrations is organised from the top down, rather than from the community level up.  The same is increasingly true of Anzac Day.

Sam:  What should I do when Australia Day every year?  Go in hard, and party like its 1788?  Or, let the whole thing go through to the keeper and get on with my own stuff?

Bruce:  There is a lot that is good about Australia.  Let’s celebrate that on 26 January, if not 1 January, and work on making Australia better the other days of the year.

Sam:  I am interested in looking at Australia from different perspectives of political philosophy, start with the collectivist philosophies of religion, socialism and nationalism.  In religion the collective is the body of the faithful before God.  In socialism, and its close cousins, the collective is defined by social class – especially in Marxism.  In nationalism the collective is ‘the people’ of the nation; where membership of the nation is defined by culture (especially language and religion), geography, law and / or race.

Sam:  What should the faithful make of Australia Day.

Bruce:  Not so much I would think.  Religions already have their holy times – Christmas and Easter in Christianity – the most influential religion in Australia.  Christians can be grateful for Australia’s religious tolerance and the national institutional embrace of Christianity in law and custom.  But there is nothing Australia specific there.  Christians might celebrate the birthday of 3o other nations states before Australia.

For religion in general there is nothing in the actual 26 January celebrations that invites or promotes religion.  In fact, to the extent that nationalism is a substitute for religion, Australia Day is problematic for the religious.  Nonetheless, in most Churches across the nation a prayer of thanks to God will said this Sunday for the very existence of Australia.

When I was a kid we said the Lord’s Prayer at assembly every single school day.  I can’t remember anyone raising a flag or singing God Save the Queen, except on Anzac Day.  I don’t know what school kids do today, but I bet they sing the national anthem pretty often.

Sam:  At the end of each school assembly at the primary school my kids attended.   I can’t remember whether they raised the flag.

Bruce:  It is not just in the schoolyard that religious observance is replaced by rituals of national devotion.

Sam:  What about socialists, can they get excited about Australia Day?  Should I break out my Red Eureka?

Bruce:  Here the problems are similar.  Yes, there is much for socialists to like in the law, culture and institutions of Australia.  But the competition with nationalism is a problem.  The intersection of nationalism and socialism has a dark history and that is equally true of the intersection of nationalism and religion.  Authentic socialism has to be  internationalist – the fraternity of the working class and rural underclass everywhere.   How does celebrating Australia Day fit with that?

Sam:  What about nationalists?

Bruce: For Australian nationalists Australia Day is a day for unbridled celebration.  It competes even with Anzac Day for primacy in the Australian nationalist calendar, because Anzac Day is not really about the nation.

Nationalists everywhere believe in the exceptional nature of their particular nation and its place in history and its status relative to other nations.  Without a focus on history and the passage of the nation through history there is no nationalism.  Hence the whole 1788 thing.

Sam:  What should liberals make of Australia Day?  Liberals give primacy to the rights and liberties of individuals, so how excited can they get about about the birth of a collective project such as the European settlement of Australia?

Bruce:  Like I said we should enjoy Australia Day as a celebration of everything uniquely Australian from culture to the environment.  But we should also recognise that the promotion of Australia Day by the State is the State trying to build a devotion to Australia that will be needed when sacrifice is needed.

The liberal democratic state is the child of the enlightment – of reason.  But when it needs to call on its citizens to make great sacrifice it excites a fervour on nationalism, religion or injustice.  The state, itself built on the reason of the right side of the brain, must appeal to emotive, romantic notions of nationalism, religion and / or injustice, of the left side, because those feelings are strong enough to impel mass action and pure reason is not.

It is a sub-conscious thing, but in a state like Australia, which has become so secular and is a melting pot of many nationalities a conscious effort must be made to bulid a  devotion to the nation, so that can be tapped into if needed.  Moreover, playing a nationalist tune in Australia is not nearly as dangerous as it would be in other democracies.

Sam: Cheers Bruce

Bruce:  Onya mate

3 Responses to "What to make of Australia Day?"
  1. Very interesting thanks Sam.

    I like the idea that societies have a continuous dialogue with themselves. They also have a continuous dialogue with other societies. The focus of that external dialogue for Australia has moved from Britain to the US, where patriotism is big and loud and no one sings God Save the Queen.

    • Rabee
      We are certainly becoming more American. In US, as I am sure you know, school children recite the pledge of allegiance first thing every school day and little league baseball matches begin with the playing of the national anthem — all the parents and children standing hats in hands.
      In the UK the waving of the flag, except on special occasions like royal weddings, is seen as being divisive and inflammatory. I guess Australia is more like the US in the displays of national symbols being less dangerous. We are also more like the US in being a constructed nation state that needs to work on getting its many new members to become devoted to the nation.

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