Indigenous Australia

The unravelling of the flag on Australia Day

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Unity within Australia is becoming unravelled (Image via Flickr - edited)

Inspired by a childhood anecdote where an Australian flag became frayed and unravelled, Joanne Penney reflects on how our society is doing the same.

GROWING UP, the Australia Day weekend wasn’t really mentioned, as it was my parents’ wedding anniversary that took precedence. There was a vintage car rally held in South Australia that weekend and Dad had restored a couple of British cars from 1950. With car rallies come rally packs — a plastic bag full of useless flyers for businesses, a couple of samples of car wash or the like and, if it was well organised, there’d be an enamel badge to mount on the car’s front bumper, collected like seashells from beach walks.

The closest I’ve ever come to celebrating Australia Day was at a rally in the 1980s, where the South Australian organisers put a mini Australian flag in the rally pack. I don’t know which car was the first to sport the flag, but as we all pulled out onto the road, I looked to the long line of motoring history in front of us and behind. It didn’t seem to matter from where the cars had originated, they all had the flags cable-tied to antennae. I begged Dad to do the same and sat in the back seat closest to the antenna to watch this mini Australian flag fluttering from the wind (because it certainly wasn’t the speed).

One corner of the flag came undone — slowly the thread pulled itself, unweaving and leaving a long ribbon trailing behind us. I asked Dad to pull over, to fix the mess, but he didn’t want to fall out of formation or to get left behind the pack.

I can’t help but dwell on the image of the unravelling flag, partly because it was the closest I came to celebrating Australia Day, but also because it now seems like a foreshadow of what was to come, a metaphor for the unravelling of Australian unity that I feel in 2019.

This Australia, where so many Americanisms are passed off as our patriotic history (share if you grew up pledging allegiance to the flag, hand on heart, unsolicited text messages to "make Australia great", implying we were never great beforehand) and all the division and hatred on social media that flows onto the streets periodically erupting in violence, the us-and-them styled thinking with social media providing the platform for it to flourish.

Our nation’s history is one of colonisation, one of the White Australia Policy, one where even ten bob Poms were booed docking in Freemantle and, let’s face it, they’re as white as it gets.

This year’s lamb ad hits a nerve. The corporate types floating, lost at sea, the moans of how we just can’t get anything right. It’s not totally off the mark. Perhaps joining with New Zealand would improve our international profile after all. But they jest, with a little truth.

We are unravelling. It’s the Aussie way to poke fun at things, at least it used to be, but the main thing we poked fun at was ourselves — our very multicultural selves. Truth be told, it’s all our various minorities that made us great; be it the Chinese in the goldfields, Greeks and Italians in the suburbs, ten bob Poms in Nissen huts awaiting factory jobs and a chance at the Australian dream. Our immigrants were all considered hard workers who helped build this Australia, and brought with them gastronomic delights and customs.

Being a Gen-Xer, I only had to listen to the music of my youth (“...our men are all wogs, hey! ah, new Australians fellas?” — thank you, Brian Mannix) or our movies (I decided to be the best Wog Boy there was). “Ah, it’s-a not so bad…”, according to Joe Dolce, to see the humour, at least until I really listened to songs like Solid Rock (Goanna), Great Southern Land (Icehouse) and Beds Are Burning (Midnight Oil) just to name a few who were White Australians acknowledging our Black past.

Years later, I saw where this custom had started. As a mature-aged law student, I was shocked when the lecturer said our Constitution was one of the most racist documents we would ever study, pointing out that Indigenous Australians were classed as “flora and fauna” until a 1967 referendum.

My husband was born in 1967; this happened during my generation, not way back in dusty history books. My lecturer went off course then to explain the many cliff edges around Australia that had been called Nigger’s Leap, because British colonists had herded up the Indigenous and chased them, men women and children alike, off the cliffs, forced to leap to their deaths.

I wanted to be sick.

In any other context, people would scream mass murder and genocide.

Racism has a subtle trickledown effect. My paternal grandmother was called “Jackie” and she wore the name proudly, despite her name being Ida. Family history has it that she gained the nickname “because she worked as hard as a Blackfella” (Jackie being an Australian slang term used to deny Indigenous people their individuality).

Too many of the far-Right seem sucked back to the White Australia Policy mindset when it comes to changing the date of Australia Day, either because “they’re not responsible for what their ancestors did”, which apparently translates to today’s Indigenous people shouldn’t hold a grudge over the treatment of their ancestors, or they’re stuck in the “fit in or get out” mentality, which always circles back to what sounds like a conspiracy theory, where we’ll become a Muslim nation if we don’t stop all immigration. (Seriously? I need a tin foil hat for that one.)

Recently, this paranoia was best displayed by the Australian Government’s decision to cancel Australian citizenship where certain offences are committed and the offender has dual citizenship, but in their zeal to test the new legal muscle they’ve effectively made one person stateless already and this policy is still learning how to crawl. (Did I mention it’s illegal to make a person stateless under international law? Never mind, too late.)

Whether you call it Australia Day or Invasion Day, perhaps what’s needed is for schools to properly teach the history of this day and all its previous incarnations, of which there is an entire timeline. It hasn’t always been a day to get maggoted on VB, paint your face, show off your weathered Southern Cross tattoos or float around in a blow-up toy printed with our flag (made in China). While we’re talking dress and behaviour codes, perhaps you’ll soon have to wear a suit on Australia Day. If Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants new Australians to dress the part on the day, shouldn’t we all set an example instead of plastering our flag onto our faces, thongs and wearing it as a cape? I wonder if he’ll also deem the cry of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” too loutish for the day as well?

Let’s tidy up the mess that has become Australia Day and weave a new piece of history out of the threads we already have without worrying about falling out of a pack and weave some unity instead.

Joanne Penney is a freelance writer and journalist. You can follow Joanne on Twitter @penneywrites.

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