Finding meaning in Australia Day holiday

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ reflects on the meaning of Australia Day

While on holiday this year I was musing on Australia Day and the penumbra of discontent that surrounds its celebration. I was staying at the Jesuit holiday house at Gerroa, built on a rise overlooking the beach and the mouth of a tidal creek. Beneath the grass of the rise is an Aboriginal midden. The first Australians who for millennia gathered here to eat have long since been driven away.

The beach at Gerroa, NSW

The beach at Gerroa, NSW

The news was full of anger and suffering — bomb blasts in Turkey, plaintive appeals for humanity on Manus Island, refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, an ill-tempered and ominous transition to power in the United States, unceasing bombings and deaths in Syria, and the harrowing of the Rohinga in Myanmar. And in Australia, constant sniping at minority groups, including Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers and young offenders. A cacophony of calculation, hatred and neglect.

The beach scene could not have been more different. Red and blue umbrellas like mushrooms and pavilions dot the beach. Families mark out their square of sand. Grandparents and young parents introduce their babies to the sea, watch their young children play in the waves, take somnolent part in games and beach cricket and soccer open to all comers, attend to the discipline of sun hats and cream, and look on as their older children and friends master the waves and explore the subtleties of friendship. It is a festival, a celebration of love, spontaneity, of connection and play, oblivious of the people who for millennia had here gathered mussels and shellfish and eaten plentifully.

The enjoyment of the holidays did not cancel out or soften the mayhem, muddle and malice of the public world and the people whose lives and happiness are so destroyed by them. It held in mind the images of death and diminishment, but set them on a canvas of thanksgiving for the ways in which kindness and humanity are embodied in people’s lives and are passed on, for the strength and delicacy of relationships that we take for granted, and for the gift of a beach holiday that is an impossible dream for so many Australians, and would be unimaginable for others who associate beaches with death and incarceration.

On Gerroa beach it seemed natural simultaneously to honour the Indigenous Australians who had for so long gathered happily to eat together, to acknowledge the invasion and occupation of their lands that had wiped them out, and to feel shame at the continuing marginalisation of Indigenous Australians today. It seemed natural also to be grateful for the gift that this beach and its history are to Australians today, and to accept our responsibility to address the consequences that the arrival of the first fleet had for the first Australians.

More than this, the nurturing and tender relationships embodied on the beach provided a standard by which to measure the things that make news: the public relationships displayed in the dealings of nations, between nations, between competing groups in society, between politicians, and between antagonists in social media. The richness of the one reveal the poverty of the other.

These reflections bear on the celebration of the Australia Day holiday. The controversies about it usually focus on ‘Australia’, and so ask legitimate questions about on which day it should be celebrated: the anniversary of the landing of the first fleet, seen either as the beginning of British occupation or of Indigenous destruction, or on another day that  unites all Australians.

The deeper questions, however focus on ‘Holiday’, and so about how we celebrate any national holidays, and particularly those that commemorate events in our history. In the Australian cultural myth, holidays are times for forgetting – good Aussies bury the claims the world, history and the family make on us under a pile of tinnies shared with the mates. We rip the scab of meaning off the interchangeable cans of Australia Day, Anzac Day, Labour Day and the Queen’s Birthday and get down to the serious business of wiping ourselves out. Or we fix a single label of meaning on the day and declare those who demur to be Un-Australian.

National days, however, are more properly about memory and attentiveness to all the relationships that compose Australia. They invite us to notice and be thankful for and to celebrate the tenderness of our domestic relationships and the general amiability of our relationships with strangers and our international relationships.  

They invite us also to allow these good things to measure the prejudice, gross inequality and violence in our society and the brutal self-interest in our dealings with other nations. They also measure the historical relationships that have shaped Australia, and particularly the violence, dispossession and subsequent discrimination and neglect in our relationships with Indigenous Australians.

Whenever it is celebrated Australia Day should evoke memories that make us thankful and memories that make us ashamed. Its celebration should also encourage us to reform what has been bent.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ