They call Australia the Sunburnt Country for two reasons; first, most of the land on the continent is baron desert, completely uninhabitable for humans. Second; for the 20 million people that do live here (mostly along the east coast and a few small pockets in the south and west) the sun is to be worshipped. It is, if you will, part of our relatively new identity. That of the beach, the sand and surf, and the sun itself. An essential part of the great outdoors.
The combination of this makes us unique, and most of us proud, as it comes with the privilege of freedom many in the world literally die for, but it also has its downsides. Australia is the skin cancer capital of the world. Second, it limits what it means to be Australian. Not everyone can surf or afford a lifestyle that allows endless sundrenched days on the beach. Some people don’t even like the beach. Some people don’t even like the sun. After all, it kills thousands of people every year.
On the 26th January every year the nation celebrates Australia Day. It’s a public holiday, a show of patriotism with the flag flown proudly, and if it so happens to fall on a weekend, then in true Australian spirit, we get the Monday off in lieu. But what does it mean to be Australian? A friend of mine recently sent a text message from the other side of the country:
Wishing everyone a Happy Australia Day… Now go out and “glass” some body.
It’s a crass but sad in-joke about the common practice of people getting into fights and smashing another in the face with a bottle or glass. Sure, it was delivered in jest buy a person who would never do such a thing, but it may not be so far off the mark. The two pictures above were taken during a riot between 5,000 people at Cronulla Beach in Sydney almost 10 years ago, an event which polarized the country and ignited the flare of racism and hatred from both sides, a flare of feudalism that had been brewing like a pressure cooker and eventually exploded into a week long battle between anyone considered themselves “Australian” and basically anyone “else”, in particular Sydney’s Lebanese population.
That event is worth an article in itself. Stand by for that. For now, back to Australia Day…
A little more than 200 years ago Australia was colonised by the British and most of the initial residents were convicts. Effectively, the country was established as a prison to deal with the overflow of petty criminals in the UK. Captain James Cook was an explorer who led the Endeavour to map previously uncharted parts of the world, including Australia. It was after this and his death in Hawaii that the ships began to arrive in Australia, offloading “settlers” and “convicts”, who literally built roads in Sydney by following the tracks in the landscape left by livestock.
It was also throughout this time and for the next 150 years that the local indigenous population was displaced, eradicated, forced into labour, raped or simply killed. The below image (dated 1951) is an aboriginal man’s “exemption” card required by all Aboriginal men to carry and which advised them what they were allowed to do, where they could eat, live and congregate, etc.
It was around this time that Australia needed a larger population, one which was based more on a kind of ‘skilled’ migration than simply the dregs of British prisons. Hence the industrial revolution began and another wave of settlers arrived. Southern Europeans were among them, as well as Chinese merchants setting off as part of a Gold Rush to find their fortune, which more often than not meant building a business and starting a new life in a strange and foreign land where the sun killed more people than man himself and nobody seemed to speak the same language.
Australia is now considered a multi cultural utopia, with the freedom of speech a cornerstone of our identity. Most people who live here are deeply proud and patriotic, something not unique to Australia, but there are tensions. Although Captain Cook did not settle any convicts here, he does for many symbolise the colonisation of Australia and the inevitable displacement of the indigenous culture. Hence every January 26 you get two distinct factions; one which celebrates all that it means to be Australian, even if this can not be defined in a simple sentence, and once which views the day as scar of shame and who label the public holiday as “Invasion Day”.
The above picture was taken along the Yarra River promenade less than 50 metres from where I live. I walk past it everyday on my way to work, just as thousands of other people walk past Captain Cook’s Cottage, a heritage-listed building and iconic feature of the Melbourne parklands, which was also vandalised on Australia Day.
No doubt Australians remain divided over our current identity and the meaning of our past. Calls for changing the flag are common. I myself do not buy into any of the hysteria, one way of the other. I love my country, but I also recognise the past as having its fair share of flaws, but then who doesn’t?
Show me a country in the world that has an unblemished history and I’ll eat humble pie. Not one person alive today had anything to do with what went on 200 years ago. That doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge it, but it doesn’t mean we disrespect everything that the current land in which we live represents either.
No one is forced to live here. There is an entire planet out there, so to the person who spray painted the crude slogan about our country and those who de-faced a heritage building, perhaps you might purchase a one-way ticket and choose another place to live.
And to those who like to pick up a bottle or a glass or another weapon and get into a fight after drinking an entire slab of beer in one session, like one famous cricketer did on a flight to London, then you might want to jump on the same plane and go back to the UK.
The British established our country as a prison and now it is a paradise, so feel ‘young and free’ to pack your bags and head back to where you came from, wherever that is, because none of that behaviour is acceptable to the majority.
You are both as bad as each other.
To capture the essence of this in a more powerful visual context, the image below is that of an assault victim who had a chair smashed into his face on Australia Day in 2005. The chair went through his eye socket, smashed his nose and nearly penetrated his spine.
It took the fire brigade and medics several hours to cut the chair leg off and take the victim to hospital, where he remained in a coma for several weeks before finally recovering. He was an Indian student, living here to study engineering and found himself in the middle of an “honour contest” with an Aussie man in his twenties with a tattoo of the Southern Cross star constellation on his forearms, the same constellation that graces our flag and which symbolises where we come from and who are.
Well, if you ask me, we are not from the same place. I am nowhere near where the attacker in this incident is from, nor are the vast majority of Australians, even if we happen to haven born and raised (or just lucky enough to live) in the same country.
So Happy Australia Day for 2014 folks, but don’t forget that we are all from somewhere else and that even if the stars in the Southern Cross occasionally do collide above our sunburnt country, we still live in a utopia… or at least maybe as close to utopia planet earth can get.
And if you don’t like it… leave. The following clip is you.
Head Shot will be out soon. Click the collage below for a look at the trailer.