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January 27, 2013 by brettdgale
It wasn’t that long ago that Australia Day was little more than a long weekend postscript, a surrogate for the unofficial end of summer and the return to “serious” work. Little thought was given by the vast majority of Australians as to why they were getting a work-free Monday. That began to change with the shift to celebrating Australia Day on its actual day (which only began in 1994 btw) and in recent years it has established itself as a day of reflection on the Australian identity, our past, and the type of nation we want in the future.
In my view this is a good thing, every nation needs a day where we remember who we are and debate who we want to be, even if occasionally some Tory feels the need to get out the dog whistle.
For obvious reasons, 26 January is a time fraught with mixed emotions, particularly for indigenous Australians. But it is better than the only alternative, a day of over-hyped mythology celebrating carnage on a Turkish battlefield. And surely, January 26 is the ideal time to reflect on the injustices of our past and to commit to overcoming them in the future, and yes, to celebrate the great strides we’ve made in our national story.
Without that seminal landing on 26 January 1788, Australia would have been a much different place. It is the founding moment for all that followed, shaping us in the way we are. Without it, I dare say that most of you, and certainly I, dear reader, would not be living on this continent at all. I firmly believe that the fact that Australia started as a penal colony has shaped the subsequent evolution of our nation and our national psyche – the seemingly contradictory notions of both our larrikin nature and our comfort with interventionist government and authority.
Thus, the celebration of Australia Day is as perfect a time as any to contemplate the antecedents of the Australian character.
Into this discussion on the major forces shaping the Australian personality, enter Peter Fitzsimons and his new historical doorstopper on the Eureka stockade. (For those reading from abroad – Eureka was a rebellion of miners on the Victorian goldfields ruthlessly crushed by the authorities and to date Australia’s only armed civil insurrection).
Fitzsimons makes a compelling case that rather than simply being a “local tax revolt” as Bob Carr would believe (I wonder if he feels the same about the American revolution – no taxation without representation anyone?), Eureka was one of the first acts of Australian multiculturalism in which people of different backgrounds joined together for a common cause.
That cause was not just economic, it went to the establishment of democratic rights in what was little more than a military dictatorship supported by a landed gentry of squatters (who lets face it, basically stole their land). Through detailed use and display of primary sources Fitzsimons not only captures the essence of the rebellion and the miners’ cause but goes a distance in proving the case that it played a seminal role in the change the course of Australian political development. Along the way Fitzsimons neatly captures the overreaction of authoritarians and non-democratic governments everywhere to even the mildest calls for democratic representation.
For all those even somewhat familiar with the story of Eureka Fitzsimons catalogues a swathe of new material and adds both colour and clarity to a much distorted Australian historical milestone. I was pretty chuffed personally, to see that both Marx and Engels had taken such a vivid interest in the cause of the Ballarat diggers. As historical record this book is a substantial addition to the canon.
Therefore it’s not the substance, but perhaps the style of Fitzsimons’ new book that gets on my nerves. There is an old adage that history is just one damn thing after another, unfortunately Fitzsimons seems to have taken the idea as a kind editorial commandment. And there were a little too many exclamation points for my liking. Still as one of the biggest selling authors in Australia, he clearly knows what his audience wants.
And he makes sure that no discussion of the historical Australian character is complete without a call to arms for the future. Indeed, after 600 pages, of history, Fitzsimons argument boils down to a very contemporary one – it’s time for an Australian Republic (oh and a new flag while you are at it!)
I couldn’t agree more. It’s well past time that this debate was reignited.
It’s well past time that we again examined our future and escaped the legacy of the Howard era – an underlying ugly nationalism masked by a soporific complacency.
Unfortunately, the politicians that should be most pushing this cause are strangely silent (having been defeated once by the wiles of Howard, the brutal negativity of Abbott, and the lunatic purity of the direct electionists). Well stump up I say, while it’s too late for Australia Day 2013, let’s see if with Fitzsimons help we can get the ball rolling for a serious discussion on our national identity by the time Australia Day 2014 comes around.