Brace yourselves… the annual Australia Day debate has begun! Over the past few years our annual fight over whether or not we should change the date of Australia Day has become as much a part of the big day as the BBQ and the inevitable backyard cricket. And let’s be honest, we are all a bit sick of it. What the apparently enraged and self-righteous left, and the indignant and patriotic right miss each year though, is that this annual barney actually rests on some deeper and more important questions than simply the date of Australia’s favourite long weekend. It is high time that as Australians we engage in a more grown up conversation about our nation’s history, and what it means for our national identity.
I spent the last week travelling around Germany, exploring key historical sites in Munich, Nuremberg and Berlin. Anyone who has ever spent even a few minutes watching the History Channel will recognise the significance of those cities to the darker aspects of German history. The opening act of the Nazi Party’s rise to power took place in Munich, the vast party rallies in Nuremberg consolidated their power throughout Germany, and the curtain fell on the regime and its horrors under the crushing weight of the Red Army in Berlin.
Inconceivable evil was perpetrated by the Nazi Regime, of which the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were brutally murdered, formed only part. Estimates of total numbers of deaths in WW2 vary from 50-80 million, and the suffering caused by the conflict continued for decades. It is safe to say that the German people of today have a difficult national history to live with, and hard questions to answer with regard to their national identity as a result. While of course Australia’s history in no way compares to that of Nazi Germany, it provides an interesting parallel to our struggle with the difficulties in our own nation’s history.
Our national identity as Australians is constructed of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, both factual and mythologised. When we change the story, or the symbols that we use to represent it, in subtle but important ways we also change our identity. I began my career as a History teacher at the height of what became known in Australia as the “History Wars.” Key to the debate was the question of the appropriate language to use regarding the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay in 1788. Was it settlement, colonisation or invasion? How were we to portray the relationships between the colonisers and the colonized, or indeed to deal with the violence and collaboration between Aboriginal peoples and colonisers on the frontiers of settlement? What were we to say about what became known as the Stolen Generations?
At stake most obviously in the History Wars were such critical issues as Aboriginal land rights, an apology and potential compensation for an array of past wrongs. Academic, media and political forces arrayed themselves on both sides of this war, and dug themselves in to positions so deep as to be irreconcilable. Each new re-statement of our national story from either side was greeted with howls of outrage from the other. At stake for both sides fundamentally lay a loss of identity as Australians. If we accept a narrative of modern Australia based on brutal conflict and invasion carried out by imperialist British forces against innocent and victimised Aboriginal peoples, our most fundamental self-concept as that of a peaceful, law-abiding yet adventurous and individualistic nation is tarnished.
For the past seventy-two years Germany has been struggling to come to terms with a national story forever marked by the scars of horror and outrage. Only a few short decades after reunification, what is most interesting is the bravery and candor with which the German people have engaged in a distinctly mature conversation about their past. From the rubble and ashes of the historical legacy the German people have inherited they have worked hard to construct a new national identity. Walk down any street in Berlin, for example, and you will see subtle and thought-provoking acknowledgement of the past. Australia would do well to look to the example of Germany as we come to terms with our own past.
For Australia to do this, we must accept that our national story, and thus our national identity cannot be simplistic and one-sided. When I was a small child I believed my parents were all powerful and all knowing. As I have grown up, however, I have come to realise that like everyone else my parents have limitations, even flaws, and their flaws are as much a part of who they are as their strengths. I do not love them any the less as a result of this. In fact as an adult with a more three-dimensional and nuanced understanding of my parents I suspect I love them more deeply now than I could as a child. As an adult I can more readily understand their struggles, their failures and their uncertainties, and respect them all the more for working so hard to overcome them throughout their lives. We should engage with our country’s history in much the same way.
Australia’s history has some dark and difficult episodes with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples that continue to cause real pain and suffering today. At the same time, our national story is a narrative of trial over adversity, of bravery in the face of danger and of communities and individuals rising to meet the challenges of life. I cannot love my country less because I see its flaws. Rather, I love it all the more as I see it struggling to overcome them. We have a rich and nuanced history from which to construct our national identity, and much to celebrate. To change the date of Australia Day would be to deny the complexity of our national story and seek to remodel our national identity as on an overly simplistic narrative of shame that denies all that we have achieved together throughout our history.
I suspect (unfortunately) that the “change the date” debate will continue to be a feature of our Australia Day celebrations for many years to come. As we stand around the BBQ this Australia Day, I just hope we can pause for a moment and reflect on both the difficulties of our past as well as our great achievements as a nation, and love Australia all the more as a result.