Mr Stephen Woods, Director of the English Faculty
I would like to share some thoughts on Australia Day with you. I have to be honest, it has always been one of those holidays I have gladly taken but not given a lot of thought to. When I was your age, while I never used to think about Australia Day, I certainly had an opinion on it: I did not like it.
For me it signaled a return from the bliss of the summer holidays to the mere ‘joy’ of school. The Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates insists that we should think about things, arguing that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, so I have done some thinking because if Socrates is right, then the unexamined public holiday is not worth having.
I started my thinking last year when I listened to the 2011 Boyer lectures, delivered by the renowned journalist and writer Geraldine Brooks (some of you may have read her book March in Year 10). In these lectures, she looked at the idea of home, which is what Australia Day is all about. Brooks proposed that ‘home’ can mean a lot of things, but I want to use three of the definitions she offered: a place of origin; an environment offering security and happiness; and, finally, a goal or destination (Brooks, 2011).
If home is a place of origin, Australia is not my home, and I am guessing that for a lot of you and for your parents it is not home either. I am a migrant. My Scottish family emigrated to Australia in 1973 when I was six. I have a photo of the moment we arrived. My mum must have gone down the stairs ahead of us to take it, and it shows my dad, my little brother, and me emerging from the plane at the top of the stairs. My brother and I are looking pasty but very sharp in yellow paisley shirts, blinking against the Queensland sun.
That was on a Saturday and by the next week I was in Grade Two at Dalby Central State School. At the start of the school day, like every other state primary student in Queensland, I recited—hand on heart—the School Creed: I love God and my country; I honour the flag; I will serve the Queen, and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers, and the laws.
As you can tell, individual thought was not encouraged. We were indoctrinated into being unquestioningly Christian, patriotic, and cheerfully compliant little Australians. For me as a very recent arrival, this was patently bizarre. I had been in the country for a week and I was mouthing platitudes about loving Australia and honouring the flag.
But a place doesn’t become a home through lip-service. It took a while for me to feel that Australia was home, and for my parents it would probably never be. Like many migrants, they were divided between two homes, the adopted and the native.
That second definition of home as ‘an environment offering security and happiness’ is the one that really gets a hammering on—and in the lead-up to—Australia Day. It seems that everyone wants us to proudly and patriotically buy their stuff, whether that stuff is an attitude or a grocery item. And by doing so, we will attain a kind of patriotic satisfaction.
I will offer you two examples. Last week I happened upon the Australia Day Council’s television ad. It cheerfully invited me to ‘celebrate what’s great’, listed a few great things about Australia, and then ended by smugly assuring me that ‘tomorrow we get to live it all over again’, like a kind of Groundhog Day, or Pleasantville, (or, indeed, the Lotos-eaters of Homer and Tennyson) but happier and at the beach.
Socrates would not find a lot of examining going on in this campaign, just a lot of merry navel-gazing. I know we probably all feel quite glad to call Australia home, but hopefully the reasons for that run a little deeper than those offered in this promotion.
The reasons for our love of our homeland, however, do not run particularly deep according to the manufacturers of our spreadable salty icon, Vegemite. An article in the newspaper told me that this proudly foreign-owned product has changed its packaging for Australia Day. The word ‘Vegemite’ has been replaced with the word ‘Australia’, written over a little outline of our continent.
I could not decide whether this was the most blatant piece of commercialised patriotism I had ever seen or just plain insulting. Allow me to quote Vegemite’s Marketing Director: ‘Vegemite has been manufactured in Australia for 89 years. We recognise it is an historic part of Australia’s culture, identity and personality and for this reason are delighted to create a special jar which we hope will capture the nation’s imagination and inspire them to celebrate Australia Day’ (‘Vegemite to Change …’).
The answer was now clear: the ‘Australia-mite’ jar was the most blatant piece of commercialised patriotism I had ever seen and just plain insulting. What kind of nation would we have to be if a jar of yeast extract could ‘capture the nation’s imagination and inspire [us] to celebrate’? We would have to be pyjama-clad morons, standing in front of our fridges each morning in slack-jawed wonder, our tiny, sleepy minds inspired by a little yellow-topped jar: I love Vegemite and my country; I honour the brand; I will serve vegemite on my toast, and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers, and the advertising industry who so happily jump on the patriotic bandwagon.
That leaves me with the third idea of home, and it is the one I prefer, the idea that home is ‘a goal or destination’. This might seem a bit strange, but think of the way we speak about a missile ‘homing in’ on its target or a footballer slotting a penalty ‘home’. When we sing Advance Australia Fair, it would probably be a good idea to think about exactly where it is we are advancing to. When we have come up with an answer to that, we can think about how we can each do our bit to help get there. In the second verse of the anthem are the lines:
Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands
It is this concept of home that I like to think about on Australia Day when I listen to the radio news in the morning while eating my vegemite on toast, or watching the news in the evening after my mandatory lamb barbecue. The news I like to get is about all those who have received Australia Day Honours for the things they have done to advance our community. I look forward to hearing some of your names when I tune in in years to come.
So I have talked about three ideas of home and it is pretty clear which one I prefer to think about on Australia Day. But thankfully the days of School Creeds and ‘cheerful obedience’ are long gone. What will advance our country is not me or anyone else trying to impose their view of Australia, but each of us thinking about our country’s future and coming up with our own versions and visions of home. Perhaps you will spend a few minutes on Australia Day next year doing just that.
Brooks, Geraldine. ‘Our Only Home’ 2011 Boyer Lectures, Lecture 1. Retrieved January 17, 2012, from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/boyerlectures/lecture-1-our-only-home/3680652
‘Vegemite to change its name to Australia on limited edition jars to celebrate Australia Day’ in The Daily Telegraph, January 5, 2012, retrieved January 18, 2012, from