I think everyone of a certain age can remember a certain mantra from John Howard. Symbols, he intoned, are not important. “Symbolic Reconciliation” is not important, he couldn’t say Sorry. The Republic was just a symbol, of interest to “elites”. Not broken, don’t fix it.
Yet, symbols he liked were somehow exempt. Howard usurped the role of the Head of State, wanting to preside over things like the Olympics, attending military funerals, laying wreaths, and always, always, wrapping himself in the Flag. Which is just a symbol.
I think everyone of a certain age can also remember a time when “Australia Day” was pretty much a nothing day. A moveable feast that made a long weekend, where some obscure ceremonies involving firing salutes would take place, and where a few history re-enactors would have their One Day of The Year.
I am of that certain age. I am no longer young. So I remember.
It was, of course, always a day when The Great Forgetting moved into overdrive, and Indigenous people, rightly, sought to remember and remind by renaming it Invasion Day and marching, and being visible.
But it wasn’t a day when people who – in any way – departed from The Great White Australian Male Norm – had to observe bunches of drunks with Australian flags draped over their shoulders marauding about, demanding people kiss said flags, and generally harassing anyone who visibly departed from said Norm.
And chanting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!”.
Now the path that took us here is a complex one. Music festivals, drinking binges, the crystallisation of fears and resentments, the navel gazing over Identity, all that is part of the road, as well as politicians.
But what are we left with?
Sermons and worthy speeches about unity. But a strange unity between the Official Symbols (Flag, Governor-General, military flyovers, and so on) and the appropriation of those symbols by a minority of nativists who believe that they “grew here” (whatever that might mean, but I suspect among other things, it’s rather patriarchal, since most people are actually born of women as far as I know, Macduff excepted).
This is not unity. It’s actually disunity wrapping itself in the flag of Nation and unity.
And, still, we should be Sorry that the First Peoples of our land are ignored on this day, as on most other days.