By Siri Gamage –
Australians celebrated Australia Day on the 26th of January, 2019. This is a day that marks the end of annual holiday period for Australians that began with Christmas 2018. Ceremonies associated with this event were held in cities and country towns together with grants of citizenship to new citizens i.e. immigrants. More importantly, on this day Australians celebrate the rights, achievements and freedoms they enjoy in a peaceful environment. The fact that it marks the end of annual holiday period is important to note in a country where work is given priority during the rest of the year. It is also noteworthy that Australia Day 2019 was celebrated in a context where the summer heat was extreme in most parts of the country.
The holiday period starting on Christmas day is a time of festivities among families and communities. Children who work in cities and other parts of the country travel back to where their parents and other relatives live. Often this involves traveling to remote country towns, farms and similar properties. Families unite during this period to enjoy and entertain together. For those who do not have close family, some churches organise a public Christmas lunch where anyone can attend. Emergency service workers such as those working in hospitals, police service have to work on such holidays on a roster basis. After the Christmas celebrations, those in cities and country towns tend to go to beach areas for annual holidays and spend a week or more relaxing with friends and family. Others take their caravans and travel across the country (a habit of senior citizens in particular) or go on camping to a remote location (e.g. couples and those with small children) like a national park or a river. Those on holiday, enjoy visiting different places, eating food, meeting new people, reading, having favourite drinks such as beer, and most importantly forgetting about work and other worries. Year’s savings are devoted to accessing such leisures. When the time comes for adults to begin work in the new year or children to go to school, they are well rested and re-energised. Thus, Australia Day marks the end of this restive and re-energising process. Having such a process and practice is part of the modern Australian culture.
The day before Australia Day, an event was held in Canberra with the participation of the Prime Minister to announce Australian of the year, Senior Australian of the year, Young Australian of the year, Local Hero etc. Two professional cave divers who helped in the rescue of children trapped in a Thai cave last year were jointly awarded Australian of the year award from a list of nominees. An Aboriginal Rap singer was awarded young Australian of the year award. Senior Australian award went to a paediatrician who has devoted her life for child welfare and advocacy. Australia’s local hero award went to a couple whose daughter experienced bullying and consequently ended her life. The parent couple has transformed to be anti-bullying campaigners. Thus, Australia Day awards are granted to people who have contributed significantly to improve the lives of people in different capacities by showing dedication, resilience and moving beyond the personal to public space.
While there is much to celebrate on days like Australia Day, there is also reason to be more reflective, concerned and futuristic in our attitudes and behaviour in 2019. Dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and politicians is growing due to lop sided attention given to rural and remote areas compared to the amount of spending in cities. One issue of concern to many Australians is the influx of migrants to main cities while the rural and remote towns are starving for more population. There are no significant plans to develop infrastructure in country towns to attract more people including migrants. There are no concrete plans to introduce high speed rail to such areas with the potential to reduce population pressure in the cities. Instead, Australians are compelled to rely on domestic air travel –some of which is costly-and slow train services between cities and country towns. One example is that the Country Link Train between Armidale – a small town in New South Wales with a university – and Sydney with a distance of about 500 km take 8 hours. It stops at more than 20 locations sometimes to pick a couple of passengers slowing down the train. Such practices are quite the opposite of what is happening in China and European countries. For major infrastructure projects, it takes decades rather than years to complete in Australia. E.g. second airport in Sydney.
Some Australians object to Australia Day as it is being celebrated on 26th January, the day that Captain Cook landed in Australia. Those who object mainly come from Indigenous community. They celebrate it as national Sorry Day – being the day that British colonisation of the continent and its people started with. In recent years, national sorry day has become resistance day with marches through the cities. In each march, several thousand people including non-Indigenous supporters attend. This year in Sydney, a smoking ceremony was held at Barrangaroo near Darling Harbour by Indigenous people where the State’s political leaders participated. It is a cleansing ceremony. The speaker emphasised the need to recognise what happened to indigenous people in terms of dispossession and destruction during colonisation and move forward.
During these years of destruction and dispossession, what helped indigenous people to survive was their culture, family and community e.g. culture in terms of songs, dance, ceremony and art. Even during the smoking ceremony, Didgeridoo – an instrument made from wood-was played. This instrument unique to Australian indigenous people produces a distinctive vibrating sound that in essence connects history, environment, people in a deep sense. Elders in indigenous communities play a critical role in maintaining culture and family life according to indigenous norms.
Though there are debates about the particular day when Australia Day is currently held and some argue that it needs to be moved to a different day, the fact that it provides a day of celebration on one hand and recognition for those who engage in service to the multicultural community on the other is an important factor. Celebrations include musical shows on public grounds, activities for children, food stalls, fireworks in the evening, and special guests called Australia Day Ambassadors giving speeches at the ceremony. Such events also start with a welcome to the land ceremony performed by indigenous actors. This year, as the day fell on a Saturday, following Monday was a holiday. Thus, Australians had a long weekend.
There is much unresolved business in terms of national reconciliation with the Aboriginal/ indigenous people. In this respect, there are important conversations continuing in the media, academia, leaders of government and Indigenous communities. The fact that there is no treaty between Indigenous people and the colonisers makes it difficult to find concrete and acceptable contours of reconciliation. It is noteworthy that young Indigenous people are coming forward in areas such as tertiary education, professional training, media personalities, local activism with specific views about the way forward. Increasingly, there is recognition of the fact that Australia was inhabited by Indigenous people for over 40,000 years before white settler arrival and they had a rich culture, knowledge system, and languages that could provide answers to some of the problems that we face in modern consumer oriented society today. Recognising this history, knowledge and culture and teaching it in schools and universities are important steps to follow. In a media discussion, one indigenous commentator pointed out that if we recognise this heritage, we can be elders for the whole world. Instead of focussing on the past destruction and impact of British arrival, this may be the way for the future of Australia and Australians.
This is a year of elections in Australia. Federal parliamentary election is due in May this year. In New South Wales, the State government election is also due early this year. Thus, we can expect much activity, debate, contention and competition among political actors. Climate Change and its effects have become more severe as witnessed by extreme heat in the summer months. Independent candidates are emerging in crucial seats to contest sitting MPs from the liberal party who deny that climate change is happening.
During the holidays however, Australian politicians tend to make it a point not to discuss politics unless it is a matter of urgent national importance. By and large, the media also adheres to this practice. Regular TV shows wind up around Christmas and re-start in February. In the national radio, instead of regular programs, summer specific programs are conducted. Through such programs discussions and interactions with people on more reflective and deep side of life can be heard. Political talk does not dominate such programs during the holiday period.
Expansion of new technologies such as internet, lap tops and mobile phones, is supposed to create more space for the people to rest and relax. However, the opposite is happening. While such technologies allow people to work from home on some days of the week, the work pressures on life and family are not less. If one rings a company or a government department, it takes at least 15 minutes before one can talk to an actual human being. Marketing and advertising material are broadcast on the phone until a human being answers the call. Children who normally play and interact with parents, siblings and grandparents are hooked into computer games through tablets, ipads and mobile phones. Such practices tend to create a gap between children and parents as well as grandparents. Thus, technology has become a curse in many ways for work as well as leisure.