So yesterday was the 26th of January, which is celebrated as Australia Day. It’s also the anniversary of Europeans arrival on Australia Shores. An anniversary that stirs up the good and the bad of both those things. I was asked by our local council to make a speech at the morning’s Australia Day Celebrations on the Riverfront as last year’s South Australian Young Citizen of the Year. The celebrations include a free breakfast (which I missed as I slept late…oops), citizenship awards, speeches, songs and a ceremony welcoming new citizens (there was only one this year and he was too embarrassed to do it alone, so they had a private ceremony earlier in the week), they also have a cake every year in the shape of Australia that everyone gets a piece of. Mmmm….Yum.
Australia Day is a celebration I have very ambivalent feelings towards – because of the date it’s celebrated (I’d much rather see a National Celebration occur on the anniversary of the day we became independent from Britain as a Nation in our own right, and perhaps mark the 26th Jan as a National Holiday of remembrance), it’s a also a day where I feel the ‘worst’ of what it means to be Australian often comes out and gets more air time from the media than the best of what it means to be Australian – by this I mean the celebration of being Australia that equals ‘let’s get smashed and talk about how Australians are better than everyone else/they should go back to their own country/they should learn English/they’re all drunks anyway/let’s get naked/let’s shout/litter/smoke/drape ourselves in flag and act like idiots etc’ – yep Yuck. I think we’re better than that and it’s this sort of celebration of ‘Australianess’ that I reject and is why in the past I’ve chosen not to celebrate Australia Day.
So sitting down to think about what I was going to say at an official Australia Day celebration was really tough. But here it is. What I think is amazing and fantastic about being an Australian. And in particular a Riverlander.
So attached below is a copy of my speech notes. Every time I speak, I use my hands and my words slightly differently so the written words will never really capture what I said…but you get the idea.
Note: please ignore the poor grammar – this was written as notes for me to read so it’s a little odd…
Firstly I’d like to acknowledge the traditional spiritual custodians of the land we meet on today and pay my personal respects to our Elders both past & present.
Welcome also to Mayor Peter Hunt, Council Representatives, invited guests and to each and every one of you who make up this community. The Riverland is what it is, good and bad, because of the contribution that all of us make every day. And I’d like to take this opportunity to say thankyou to all of you for the passion, dedication and energy each of you gives to trying to build a better community. I’d like to say thank you for all the times you make a choice that makes the world a little bit better for someone else. Thank you for believing that the Riverland is worth fighting for. I believe it is. I really do. I believe it’s a vibrant, complex, imperfect but ultimately worthwhile community of people & of places. I’m proud to be a Riverlander and I tell people that everywhere I go.
I would also like to acknowledge that although today’s date is considered a day of celebration for many, for many others and in particular many of our indigenous family today is also known as ‘Survivor Day’. I don’t say this to detract from the celebration of what it means to be an Australian here and now for each of us. I say this because I value and share many of those feelings. Australia Day for me is a date I have incredibly ambivalent feelings towards. Feelings that sit on opposite ends of the spectrum.
As I sat down to write this speech and think about what Australian Day means to me, what it symbolises, how and why I celebrate it and what I might share with you today. I thought about that tension for me. The tension between pride and shame. The tension between choosing when you don’t fully understand the situation or your own feelings. The tension between how lucky and proud I feel to be an Australian, and the deep sorrow and frustration I feel that we celebrate ‘Australianess’ on the anniversary of invasion. The beginning of a conquering of a culture, the beginning of so much tragedy and so many bad choices from individuals and from governments in building this nation. Last night I posted a photo on my facebook profile that captures some of this tension, this reaching for understanding I search for every Australia Day and I asked my friends ‘What does Australia Day mean to you?’. Some of the responses surprised me, in good ways and some in not so good ways. Some of the responses made me think about Australia Day in new ways. Some of them reaffirmed my thinking. And some of them just made no sense to me at all.
But most of all what they illustrated for me is that Australia Day means different things for different people. Of course, we all know that. Here (in our heads) but sometimes knowing it here and feeling and acting on it here (in our hearts) isn’t the same thing.
What I’m really saying is Australia Day means different things to different people and that’s ok. It’s actually ok for some people to hate it, for some people to love it and for some people like me to feel conflicted about the whole thing.
For some Australian Day is an anniversary of invasion, for some a celebration of the good life we have here, for others a chance to catch up with friends, for others a day off work, for others it’s entirely irrelevant. Over the last week or so I’ve watched the online world I inhabit through my work as a writer and an advocate, particularly facebook, twitter and the blogosphere, come alive with debating the meaning and necessity of Australia Day. I’ve watched as people expressed their deep gratitude to be living in a country as lucky as ours. I’ve watched as people have attacked one another’s differing perspectives of Australia. I’ve watched as people have defended white Australia. I’ve watched as people have reached out and expressed love and acceptance for those from far off lands who’ve come to these shores & those who were here before Europeans. I’ve watched as people dismissed valid reasons to celebrate Australia Day and valid reasons NOT to celebrate Australia day. I’ve watched as people have questioned, critiqued and supported the choices others make in how they spend this day.
And the one and only thing that has stood out to me from the diverse, conflicting, heated, passionate, caring, dismissive interactions is precisely that. Australia and Australia Day mean many different things to many different people and I believe that it is precisely that, that makes Australia such a wonderful place to live. We have the space and the opportunity to be different. To have different views, different lifestyles and different expectations.
Of course different views, expectations and lifestyles can and do cause friction, tension and sometimes outright hostility. But they also broaden the mind, bring new perspectives, ideas and greater compassion and acceptance into our lives. Not to mention some great food and music.
There are no right answers. No perfect solutions to any of the challenges we face as a community and more widely as a nation. There are just the answers we chose and what we do with those choices. Some of those choices will have consequences we can’t envision now. Some of those consequences we won’t like. Some we will. We’re all different. With different ideas, hopes & expectations. We’re all Australians. Whatever that means to you and your family.
And just like Australia and Australia Day, the Riverland is a place that means different things to different people. It’s meant distinctly different things to me during different stages of my lifetime and I’m just one person! Thinking about what I was going to say today I reflected a lot on how I see the Riverland and how significantly that’s changed over the last 10-12 years. As a teenager I hated this place.
I thought people here were close-minded, cliquey, snobby and obsessed with money, material things and surface level acceptance. I left the Riverland as a 15 year old and only returned to escape an unsafe relationship and raise my son near my family. On returning as a 17 year old parent I largely experienced the Riverland in a similar way as being judgmental, close minded, and cliquey – there was a deep feeling of disconnection – that idea we all joke about that your parents and grandparents had to be born here for you to be a local. Just for the record my dad and his dad and his dad were born here and so was I – yet I didn’t grow up here and it’s difficult to find an entry point sometimes when you don’t understand the culture of a place. Because every place does have it’s own culture within the larger culture of a nation. It was much like I guess it would feel coming to a place with a new language, new dress code, new climate, new expectations. I was an Australian born and raised, but sometimes I felt like an alien here. Because I didn’t understand the expectations of this place. I didn’t understand how to be part of this community, where to find the entry point. And yet over the last 10 years something shifted for me as I began to reach out and our community began to reach back to me. It started when I went back to school to finish year 12 when I was 19. I was single parent with a toddler. I was terrified. I hadn’t completed Year 10 or 11. How was I ever going to successfully complete Year 12 while maintaining a home and job and my beautiful little boy? And what happened is that people in my community, which at the time was the Renmark High School Community and my work community at the Renmark Pizza Bar reached out to me and said ‘We care about you. We believe in you. How can we help?’. And since then I’ve seen that spirit here in the Riverland everywhere I go. Because I’ve looked for it and because I’ve been a little bit lucky to come into contact with generous, passionate, whole hearted individuals who see the potential of the Riverland and it’s people. Who see that potential as being stronger than the challenges and flaws of this community. I now live in Monash and have close ties with a number of organisations, councils and schools through the work I do and I find my work so rewarding every time I pop into Coles and someone I know chooses to pause their life for a moment to have a chat and say hello. So has the Riverland stopped being what it was when I was 15? No, but how I see it has changed. What I expect from it and what I’m willing to offer it has changed.
I don’t expect it to mean the same thing to others. I don’t expect it to be kind to me or rescue me. In fact it’s become more about what I expect from myself. The responsibility I believe I have to reach out to our community, to smile with it and at it, to believe in it and champion it at every opportunity. As I said earlier I’m proud to be a Riverlander and I tell people that everywhere I go.
So today for me I’m reflecting on the complexity of our community and our nation. I’m reflecting on how precious this country is to me, it’s people, it’s landscapes and it’s ideals. I’m reflecting on the fact that we don’t always get it right but that we keep trying.
Australia is different things to different people. But to me it’s home.
I’m an Australian who has German heritage, Scottish heritage, English heritage, Spanish heritage and Aboriginal heritage. I’m an Australian with Australian friends who have distant and current connection and heritage that comes from Sierra Leone, Scotland, Malaysia, Indonesia, England, Spain, Brazil, the United States, Canada, Zimbabwe, India, China, Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Israel, Denmark and many other places across the globe. I’m an Australian who loves Caribbean music, who’s favourite food is thai & indian, who loves bad American country music, I passionately love the Australian landscape, I like Henna tattoes, I love all my stuff a lot of which is made in China, I love profiteroles and cannoli, lamingtons & fried icecream. I love laksa, pizza, kebabs, curry, fish and chips, roast and gravy and well I just love food actually. From everywhere. It’s so amazing to me that as an Australian I have access to the whole world right here. I have access to more than just the sum of who I am. That’s amazing.
Being an Australian means different things to different people. To me being an Australian means that I’m part of a complex, diverse and ever changing world and I’m a citizen of the whole world. Being an Australian means that I have both the freedom to choose and the responsibility to choose well. Being an Australian to me means I’m one of the lucky ones and the lucky ones should always be there for those less lucky. Being an Australian means that I live in a country that has wealth of history dating back thousands and thousands of years. A history which is a valuable part of the fabric of this nation even if I don’t fully understand it yet. Being an Australian means it’s my privilege and my responsibility to vote and pay taxes. Being an Australian means it’s ok to ask questions, to learn, to strive to become the best version of myself that I can be. Being an Australian means that I have the privilege of living right here and calling myself a proud Riverlander.