By Peter Jennings
Like a lot of immigrants to Australia, my family settled in this country to escape a war. We came here from southern central Africa in the 1970s. What was then Rhodesia was tearing itself apart in a civil war that devastated the country, killed tens of thousands, destroyed an economy once known as the food basket of Africa and tossed to the four winds a diaspora of people, black and white, scarred with the rights and terrible wrongs of a conflict now forgotten except by those who lived it.
And Australia welcomed us, just as Australia welcomed millions before and after my family got off a boat at Circular Quay without a plan of where to go next. One of my earliest memories of Australia was eating a curry pie from a shop on the first wharf at the quay. A culinary love affair was born. I’ll get on here, I thought.
The genius of this country is that Australia has been able to accept millions of new arrivals, often people unwanted and persecuted in their own countries, often with no money or connections, often with no hope other than wanting a chance to start again. Australia took and still takes people like that and has made a marvellous, massive, moderate, multicultural success of itself.
That’s the message of Australia Day. It is a message of hope and decency. It should be possible for us to acknowledge that Australians have built a society which, frankly, is the envy of the world. Let’s just count the ways: we are among the most multicultural countries on the planet but have, in the main, avoided the sectarian disharmony that disfigures many societies. We are a peaceful democracy that regularly transitions power between parties without trashing our parliament.
We have a free press, vigorously used. We can, and often do, criticise our governments, institutions, leaders and heroes without being beaten up and put in jail. We recognise injustice and criminality when we see it and we try to stamp it out. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We are mostly respectful of each other—although that is a standard which is sadly slipping. There are 193 member states of the United Nations. If you couldn’t live here, then where would you rather be? The US? Guns. Britain? Rain. Japan? Earthquakes. Scandinavia? Winter. New Zealand? Say no more.
And the downsides, you ask? We are complacent, profoundly unstrategic and too fond of the dollar, particularly easy money. We are too slow to mobilise when we should be acting more concertedly on big problems. Sometimes we refuse to see the obvious and it takes a lot of pressure to get us to shift our opinions. We invented the Chiko Roll. So yes, there are many flaws, but the truth is that to be born here, or to arrive here, is to win one of the few lotteries of life.
As a country, we have made a dreadful, unforgivable mess of engaging with First Australians, and I can share with Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe the commitment towards us learning to have a respectful conversation with Indigenous Australians. It would be a tremendous step forward if Australia Day could become ‘a day of healing so we can all move forward together as a nation’. To get to this point I desperately hope that it won’t be necessary to burn the village down in order to save it. Yet this seems to be the preferred strategy on the part of our national broadcaster, some peak sporting bodies, and many other commentators and influencers.
In thinking about Australia Day, we should try to avoid falling into what has happened in the United States in the past four years: a polarising and sharpening of differences in such a way that searching for middle ground is treated as a form of weakness and our opponents’ views are not just wrong but contemptable.
Down that path we will end up shouting through megaphones at people who are shouting at us—through megaphones.
Is it not a sign of national immaturity that calls to change, eliminate or denigrate Australia Day fail to acknowledge the many strengths of Australia, the many unbelievably good things that the country has achieved and stands for?
A positive view of what is great about Australia does not in any way give us a leave pass for our failings, for the tragedies of history and for the need to right some awful wrongs.
But nor can we escape our history: 26 January marks the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney in 1788. It happened. It’s the most significant day in the modern history of this country and from it, well, here we are today.
Australia Day should be—thoughtfully and respectfully—celebrated. We Australians are not cardboard cut-outs. We should enjoy the good things Australia stands for and we should know enough about the wider world to realise what a fine country we have become.
Do we have the moral courage to overcome our failings and move forward as a cohesive and just nation?
Yes, I think so.
The journey starts on Australia Day.
Peter Jennings is the executive director of ASPI and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Department of Defence.
This article was published by ASPI on January 25, 2021.
Featured Image: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images.
The video highlights the Royal Australian Air Force in its 100th year celebrating Australia Day, 2021. Footage courtesy of the New South Wales Government.