Getting over Australia Day

While pasting posters about race and identity on buildings and walls across the country, Peter Drew has encountered many people with loud and extreme views.

Over the past few years I’ve discovered that sticking up posters about Australian identity can attract people with bad ideas. They approach me on the street and online. They’re strangers, colleagues, friends and family members. Often they’re aggressive in a predictable kind of way, but occasionally something transpires that’s hard to forget. What follows are my favourite encounters with bad ideas, followed by my own bad ideas on the topic of Australia Day.

I met an activist at Melbourne University who didn’t like my posters. “Australia is a fascist construct,” he told me. I asked him whether his government-subsidised degree was also a “fascist construct” but he responded by tearing down my poster right in front of me. “That’s what dispossession feels like,” he said and walked away. By his pasty complexion I assume the “dispossession” he was referring to was the Norman occupation of England in the 11th-Century, but I can’t be sure.

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I met a conservative journalist called Keith who was convinced that the 26th of January remains the most appropriate date for Australia Day. “It’s the basis for the identity of modern Australia,” Keith insisted. I suggested to Keith that he’s not much of a patriot if he thinks that the establishment of a British penal colony should mark the beginning of Australia. Keith scoffed, so I tried a gentle touch of sarcasm. “Maybe you’d prefer our national anthem to be the sound of the Queen flushing her toilet?” Keith just walked away. I’d failed again.

I met an American called Steve who struggled to understand why Australians celebrate the ANZACs. I had just stuck up a poster in Kings Cross when Steve approached and quickly turned the conversation towards Gallipoli. “But you LOST!” he kept saying, “Why celebrate that?” He wasn’t joking. He was genuinely confused. Steve honestly couldn’t wrap his American brain around the idea that notions of victory were less valuable to our national mythology than those of sacrifice. I don’t blame Steve. After all, Americans love to win.

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We Australians, on the other hand, love to think of ourselves as the friendly underdog, with heart. We’re basically the fun-loving sidekick of Western civilization. That’s why we struggle to wrap our Australian brains around the notion that the 1st of January, as an anniversary of Federation, is a better date for Australia Day than January 26. We’d rather stay connected to Britain than truly take responsibility for our history. As a result, Australian identity remains stuck and Aboriginal identity is encouraged to degenerate into a politicised parody of itself where every sentence ends with ‘dispossession’. It’s clearly a lose-lose situation.

The loudest voices in this ‘debate’ believe they’re divided between left and right, but in reality they’re the same. On some fundamental level all their conflict stems from a common fear… they don’t believe in Australia. Meanwhile the rest of us just want a day to have a BBQ and, in some unspoken way, express our gratitude for living in this staggeringly beautiful country.

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I’ll share one more story.

Last year on Australia Day I was invited to attend a protest to disrupt an official parade on King William Street in Adelaide. ‘Why not?’ I thought, imagining a mono-cultural parade of arrogant bogans. But on arrival I discovered the opposite, a multi-cultural kaleidoscope of newly naturalised Australians from all over the world. Thousands were happily celebrating while 30 or so protesters were chanting angrily to one side. I wondered why so few of the protestors were Aboriginal, but it was obvious. Only privileged white kids could muster the moral vanity required to appropriate the outrage of Aboriginal people who died 200 years ago while condescending to the belief they were helping contemporary Aboriginal people by scaring immigrants.

When they eventually found the courage to ‘disrupt,’ it didn’t go so well. With arms linked the protestors moved in and the parade came to a halt. At first the protesters roared louder, then softened as they realised they were confronting the Muslim Women’s Association of South Australia… not exactly the oppressors they’d hoped to encounter. The women held their confused children closer as they attempted to find a way round. Even the protesters were visibly conflicted. Then the police showed up. That made the protestors feel much better. Their chanting grew louder than ever as the media arrived to capture the historic moment and progress the debate.

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