The beautiful tyrannic kingdom: celebrating Australia Day

Mr Richard Laur, Head of English Years 9–10

The following is a transcript of the address delivered by Mr Richard Laur at the Australia Day Assembly on Wednesday 25 January 2017.

Good morning Ms Euler, special guests, staff and students. There always seems to be a debate or discussion that percolates, that bubbles to the surface at this time of year. What do we celebrate on January 26th? Why do we celebrate? To celebrate is to appreciate, to show gratitude and to remember, so what do we appreciate and remember and why is this worth a day of reflection and revelry?

I think these two questions have gotten lost in the cultural noise created by television and radio, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. This noise isn’t about appreciation and remembrance it’s more superficial; it’s about how we celebrate. And there’s a lot of noise this year: outrage on Facebook about changing the date of Australia Day, having it two days later, calling it One Day; outrage on talk-back radio about an Australia Day billboard featuring two girls in hijabs; that noise leads to the billboard getting taken down and then contrary noise on social media, and a crowdfunding push to raise money to put the billboard back up. This noise has even invaded our kitchens. The lamb industry has hijacked our national holiday. They have learned the axiom that any publicity is good publicity and their latest Australia Day ad has got us all talking: Is it simplistic, stereotypical, offensive? Is it funny? It doesn’t matter, lamb sales will spike this week. The problem is that all this noise distracts us from those important questions. Australia Day risks being trivialized, we are blinded by the surface, about how we celebrate, in boardies or bikinis, with a flag tied around our neck, or in a hijab; eating lamb kebabs, or garlic prawns, or eggplant and zucchini burgers. And this noise gets so loud that it seems vital. So, on the day before we celebrate our national holiday I would like to block out the noise: let’s not talk about images and ideas from the mass media and social media. These things are ephemeral and only last a few moments in our digital world before they are replaced. What I’d like to do today is go beneath the noise to something more sturdy and permanent. I’d like to explore that bedrock of Australian culture, poetry, and use poetry to explore some more important questions. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood said, ‘The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.’  So I am going to look at two poems, ’At Cooloola’ by Judith Wright and ’An Impromptu for Ann Jennings’ by Gwen Harwood. When I first arrived in Australia at the end of 2003 I found a slightly familiar but mostly confusing country and these two poems helped me understand what makes Australia different and unique and they highlight a number of things I think we must remember and should appreciate on Australia Day.  Let’s start with ’At Cooloola’ by Judith Wright.

’At Cooloola’ by Judith Wright is a poem suffused with delight and fear and guilt. Wright explores past and present, imagines her grandfather’s interaction with Aboriginal Australians and tries to find her own place in all of this. By exploring this she highlights what I think we should remember on Australia Day. Like a lot of my favourite poetry it begins in a very specific landscape, a lake, and for those of you in Years 8-12 you can picture this lake, it might be Lake Borumba, or Lake Cootharabra from your days at Marrapatta. The persona in Wright’s poem describes seeing a blue crane in the lake. She admires the bird and imagines the past where Aboriginal people lived in harmony with the spirit with the land. She delights in her surroundings but she feels a stranger, unloved by the land. In the end, the persona feels ’oppressed by arrogant guilt’.   Now that’s a great line ’arrogant guilt’; an oxymoron worthy of Shakespeare and I think this is why some people feel uneasy on Australia Day, why some Aboriginal people object to a holiday that commemorates the landing of the first fleet and why some want a holiday on another day that aims to include everyone. So tomorrow while we remember the origins of European settlement we should also appreciate the efforts underway by people to address reconciliation – from former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations, to our Uralla group and the work done by Libellum for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, these are important things to remember and fantastic things to appreciate and be grateful for.

Now on to our second poem by the towering poet and Old Girl of Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Gwen Harwood (1937). ’An Impromptu for Ann Jennings’ is, on the surface, a much more personal and domestic poem than Wright’s ’At Cooloola’. It doesn’t seem to deal with any weighty issues like European settlement and reconciliation, but then again a lot of people think Judith Wright’s poem is about a bird in a lake. The persona in Harwood’s poem praises her friend, the eponymous Ann Jennings, describing how the two of them survived motherhood. She describes the ’beautiful tyrannic kingdom’ her children created. I love this phrase, another Shakespearean oxymoron that I believe sums up Australia: beauty and tyranny and how, as Australians, we are actually subject to both. You think we live in a democracy, we don’t. We aren’t free; we are subjects who are ruled. We are ruled by the beauty and ruled by the tyranny because for every Noosa, and Lamington National Park, for every Mt Kosciusko and Great Ocean Road, for every glorious vista that inspires us there are brown snakes and taipans, salt-water crocodiles and blue bottles, Irukandji and great whites, even a kangaroo can take a chunk out of you! So on the one hand we can appreciate our beautiful country, with bounteous gifts to share and on the other hand be grateful for our survival. And while these things are worthy of celebration, Harwood’s poem is a bit more contemplative and reflective; you see the persona and her friend climb a local mountain and although it’s tough and they reach the summit exhausted, they are elated, not for their own sake but for all the things they’ve accomplished as parents and they are confident in their work, in their children and that for all the mistakes and compromises they made, the younger generation will go on and make the world a better place. It isn’t enough to survive we need to have hope, and optimism. I have lived in five countries in my life, Canada, Malaysia, Vietnam, Switzerland and Australia and I have met people and have friends from all over the world and I can say with utmost confidence that Australians are the most optimistic people I have ever met. You talk about the lucky country, you say, ‘no worries’, ‘she’ll be right’. Harwood’s poem ends with optimism and hope and I think that is worth celebrating tomorrow.

So now that we’ve cut through the noise we should remember our past, appreciate our efforts to address it and reconcile past wrongs. We should appreciate the beauty of the land and be grateful for our survival and look forward to the future with hope and optimism. Revel and reflect tomorrow, remember and appreciate.