Morrison’s attempt to upgrade 26 January's national significance, despite growing opposition from Indigenous Australians, reflects its appropriation by rightwing extremists, writes Peter Henning.
What is it about 26 January that so excites the viscera of Scott Morrison, enlivening his martial demands to Australian councils for both uniformity and uniforms?
Are these demands intended to conform with his "standards" of sartorial elegance, which now include imitating Trump’s predilection for baseball caps?
Why would a Prime Minister with a penchant for carrying a lump of coal as a fashion accessory, while also adopting an outdated caricature of Aussie blokeyness on his empty-bus tours – akin to Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson "cultural attache" creation – be so obsessed with getting rid of thongs and board shorts from citizenship ceremonies?
No wonder the Mayor of Geraldton had a word or two to say to Morrison:
I have sworn in brand new Aussies in double pluggers, boardies, zinc on nose, saris, dhotis, suits and hi-vis workwear and everything in between.
It's unAustralian, especially in a place like Geraldton, where we have our citizenship ceremonies on the beach in 40-degree heat.
But the dress code idiocy and the attempt to subvert local government decisions in relation to citizenship ceremonies is reminiscent of Morrison’s calls for Australians to pray for rain. It is Morrison’s attempt to eclipse Abbott’s knighthood of the Duke of Edinburgh as the mark of true-blue Australian leadership.
Or maybe it is in fond commemoration of 26 January 1808, the 20th anniversary of the day that the Union Jack was planted at Sydney Cove by Arthur Phillip in 1788. For it was on that day that the officers of the NSW Corps deposed William Bligh as Governor in the so-called "Rum Rebellion".
Bligh, of course, had made the mistake of trying to curb the use of alcohol as currency — a trade monopolised by the officers and former officers, such as John Macarthur. It is not misleading to say that grog and Australia Day have always been synonymous, and the chief celebrators have always been those who have used the day to further their political agenda.
We shouldn’t forget that the first landing at Sydney Cove was very much a blokey affair, as was the Rum Rebellion. Phillip jammed the British flag into the ground, proclaiming British sovereignty and ownership of the whole continent by fiat, declaring the place to be "terra nullius", its territory now British "Crown land". When he did so, setting the stage for the dispossession of Aboriginal ownership without compensation, women were still aboard the ships in Sydney Harbour.
Perhaps those historical details stir Morrison’s enthusiasm for federal directives, but my guess is he’s in the shallow end of the pool when it comes to history of any kind. It’s more likely that he gets his mindset and his views – cynically attuned to opportunism – from the Howard handbook and, in relation to Australia Day, even from the man he replaced.
Back in August 2016, Morrison’s inept predecessor, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, made the statement that:
"To change the date of Australia Day would be to turn our back on Australian values.’"
Odd, isn’t it, that a Prime Minister with Bligh as his middle name, would say such a thing? And Turnbull, to be sure, was not thinking about how grog forms the ongoing centrepiece of Australia Day, which floats the whole baloney of "Australian values".
If Australia Day has more to say about "Australian values" than throwing a sausage or a shrimp on the barbie and getting pissed, or waving a blue ensign beside a racist bigot hiding his face behind a Union Jack on Cronulla and St Kilda beaches, then what is it?
Unless you’re braindead, what happened in January 1788 is easy to understand. The day has huge symbolism as a touchstone for control of Australian land, its wealth and its resources by a narrowly-based political-economic-social elite. That is the basis of Turnbull’s affection for "Australia Day", for it speaks to the values of class distinction, socioeconomic inequality, and deliberate redistribution of wealth, opportunity and privilege to the rich and powerful.
It is informative that, since the mid-1990s, it has been the rightwing culture warriors who have ramped up the significance of Australia Day and the notion of "Australian values" as distinct from "human values". John Howard wanted "mateship" inserted in the Constitution. For him, Australia Day was a cloak to obscure the reality that his "mateship" didn’t extend to a system of fair wages and working conditions or humanity towards the most vulnerable.
Morrison’s attempt to upgrade 26 January to a higher level of national significance than it has had in the past has been made within the context of growing opposition to the day from Indigenous Australians. It also reflects the increasing appropriation of the day rightwinging extremists, who use it as a platform for a racist agenda.
If the idea of an "Aussie fair go" actually meant anything more than rightwing propaganda, then it defies all reason that the voices of Indigenous people being heard by councils from Yarra to Fremantle are not only rejected by the Morrison Government but condemned.
Morrison likes the politics of division and would probably enjoy seeing that the green light he’s given to the gutless anonymous trolls and the Mark Latham types who can’t walk an inch in someone else’s shoes, has shone its loud and vicious glare on Indigenous journalist Brooke Boney, for saying she won’t be celebrating Australia Day.
Good for you, Brooke Boney. And good for you, Susan Moylan-Coombs, for challenging Tony Abbott in Warringah. We must chuck 26 January away because it is not inclusive. As Moylan-Coombs has said, if "each Australia Day is like pressing on a bruise for Indigenous people – and the bruise gets darker", it has no claim on any values of value.
Peter Henning is a Tasmanian historian who lived in the Tamar Valley in Tasmania during the pulp mill controversy.
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