Reasons to celebrate
This Australia Day gave hints that we are moving in the right direction

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I have always been equivocal about our national holiday – Australia Day, or, as our Indigenous citizens call it, the Day of Mourning, Invasion Day, or, more recently and more positively, Survival Day. For them, it has been a sorry commemoration of dispossession and marginalization.

And, when you think of it, for the rest of us it is a pretty depressing anniversary too: the ritual of raising a foreign flag by an imperial power at the other end of the Earth, inaugurating a brutal penal colony to exile its unwanted masses out of sight and out of mind. And, as a corollary, to attempt the deliberate cultural genocide, and often the physical genocide, of the original inhabitants.

Coincidentally, the Indians also keep January 26 as their national day, to remember the casting-out of the colonial oppressors to proclaim their independence as the world’s largest democratic republic. It seems a more worthwhile celebration.

But in 2016 there have been signs that at least some of our citizens, and more importantly our representatives, are beginning to confront our past, and therefore our future: where we have been, where we are and where we might be heading.

The prologue came in October, with Stan Grant’s searing and moving account of Australian racism and repression. And on the eve of the day itself was the inspired appointment of the Australian of the Year, David Morrison, a fearless champion of equality, diversity, inclusion and opportunity.

It was appropriate that another candidate, equal opportunity commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, was one of his mentors and that another, a former army colleague, Cate Macgregor, wrote the speech that kicked off his campaign. She was initially ungracious, but has since apologised, as she should.

The whingers and curmudgeons of course complained that the award was divisive – the retired army chief should stick to looking after veterans, and not involve himself with issues that don’t concern him, like gender, religion and, worst of all, republicanism. But they are permanently bogged in the three cheers idea of history, a nostalgia that really never existed except in their own complacency.

Last Tuesday included a lot of barbecues, beaches and beer, and nothing wrong with that; and there was plenty of flag-waving. But not all the flags were our defaced British ensign, as the vexillologists disparagingly designate it. There were many flags from other nations too, as our new settlers welcome what is arguably the most successful multicultural experiment in history.

And there were Aboriginal Australian flags flying, and not all in protest; on the day itself, one waved proudly over the Sydney Harbour Bridge as Jessica Mauboy sang an Indigenous version of the national anthem. She learned the words as a mark of respect for the local inhabitants: Mauboy was born in Darwin and her mother’s tongue was the Kuku Yalanji language of Cape York. So it was a doubly uplifting moment of national unity.

Of course, there is still much to be done; as Stan Grant lamented, it will be a long time before all Australians can truly rejoice. But there is some hope that we are getting it right; we can report progress. Last week there were reasons to celebrate. Happy Australia Day.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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