Robin Tennant Wood

Professional Services - Research & Writing

  • After my last blog entry, I’ve been doing some serious thinking about what date could be sufficiently inclusive to nominate as a National Day. As I mentioned in my previous entry, once we become a republic, and I’m fairly sure that will happen – eventually – we’ll have a date, but it will be a bureaucratic date; a date signifying a change of administration – a date for public servants and politicians and bureaucrats. How unAustralian is that?

    In no particular order, then, I offer the following list of potential national dates for your consideration, dear reader, with my critiques of same and finally my chosen date: the date I believe will draw us together in joyful celebration of Australia and all who sail in her.

    1.    January 1. This is Federation Day, the day in 1901 when the six separate Australian colonies joined together to become one nation. Sure, they all hated one another – Victoria and New South Wales weren’t on speaking terms, Queensland and Western Australia were sulking because they had about half of the land and its resources between them and suspected (with some justification) that they were being forced into handing them over, South Australia was stuck between the West and the East and wasn’t sure where to turn and Tasmania was just hoping it wouldn't be dropped off the map. Not a lot has changed. Unfortunately Federation Day falls on New Year’s Day when most of the country wakes up hungover and may not be able to face the traditional boozy BBQ and backyard cricket required of a national celebration. But there’s...

    2.    July 9: on this day in 1900 Queen Victoria, bless her heart, signed the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, the document that put everything described in (1) into action. Sadly, if there was ever a bureaucratic anniversary it’s this one. UnAustralian. Move to...parl

    3.    May 9: in 1901, this was the opening of the first Federal Parliament in Australia by the Duke of York, later King George V. All the states’ reps were there with hot and cold running dignitaries. Only one problem, it was in Melbourne. Are Sydneysiders going to rush to embrace a national day centred on Melbs? Of course, the current Australia Day is all about Sydney, but it seems Melburnians are a bit more open-minded, or had no choice in the matter. Besides, like both the above, another bureaucratic and political anniversary, so let’s move to something more cultural...

    4.    March 18: this is when the first episode of Neighbours first aired on TV. While it wasn’t Australia’s first cultural export, it spawned the export of a number of its headliners, notably one Ms Minogue, who exported herself right out of the country and now resides in Britain. Still, its all-Aussie suburban flavour made it a hit both here and overseas. Could there be a more fitting cultural anniversary? Well, maybe …

    5.    October 12: in 1972 Australia’s film industry was somewhat less sophisticated than it is now, and this date commemorates the UK release of the all-Aussie film, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which also launched the international stellar career of Barry Humphries as Edna Everage, Moonee Ponds housewife and later Dame and Superstar. Ah, yes. The poms inflicted this country with boatloads of convicts and in return we inflicted them with Barry McKenzie and some interesting vocabulary. A fair swap. But then there’s …

    herald6.    November 25: we all love a good controversy and this one is still simmering. Other than the current Australia Day date, there's no date more likely to inflame passions like a burnt snag on the barbie. Yes, this is the date Gough Whitlam approved the purchase for $1.3 million of the Pollock masterpiece, Blue Poles. It was then the highest price ever paid for a work of abstract art. The painting is now conservatively valued at $350 million and its purchase regarded as a stroke of genius. By some. But maybe a cultural anniversary doesn’t quite sum up the Aussie spirit. How about …

    7.    September 26: If you were alive in 1983 you will remember clearly where you were at around 8.30am hawkejpg(Eastern time) when the siren sounded as Australia II won the America’s Cup. The longest winning streak in sporting history was over and the prized yachting trophy was unbolted from its plinth in the New York Yacht Club to head to its new digs in Freo. The popping of champagne corks resonated around the country. Prime Minister Bob Hawke, appearing on TV in a beer-and-champagne-soaked jacket covered with 'Australia' and little flags in the shape of the country (including Tasmania), famously announced that “any boss who sacks someone for not turning up for work today is a bum.” Thousands of Australians took him up on it. The economy could have ground to a standstill were it not for the amount spent on beer. A truly national celebration. But then there’s...

    8.    October 24: If the larrikinism of the former PM is not enough, how about the anniversary of the day in 1964 when Dawn Fraser nicked the Olympic flag from the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo during the Olympic Games. Only hours before Fraser, who had won enough gold at the Olympics to buy her own Imperial Palace, was due to carry the Australian flag into the arena for the Closing Ceremony, she found herself in a police lock-up trying to explain why, at 3.00am, she was up a flagpole outside His Imperial Majesty’s bedchamber. An act surely embodying the true grit of the Australian spirit.

    But no, I have rejected all of these dates, deserving of honour though they most certainly are. I have chosen for our National Day instead, 15th December. Yes, dear reader, the birthday of Lance Hill: one of the greatest yet least heralded Australians in the history of this wide brown land.

    In 1945 Mrs Hill opined to her husband that what she really needed was a clothesline that had an adjustable height, one that wouldn’t take up the whole bleedin’ backyard and one where she could stand in one spot to hang out the washing, a clothesline that wouldn’t be backbreaking or difficult to use and might, with some creativity, be multifunctional. Quick as a dog after a posite Lance was down to his local scrapyard and using bits of metal scrounged from war surplus stocks, he built the prototype Hills Hoist. True Aussie ingenuity at its best.

    Who among us, compadres, does not recall a summer childhood spent under a hose tied to the Hills in the swingingbackyard? Who has never been reprimanded by their mother for swinging on the clothesline and then done it anyway? Again and again and again. Who else remembers those canvas cover thingies that were designed to fit over the top of the Hills to provide shade in the vast treeless expanses that were our suburbs, and was there ever a better launching pad for fireworks on cracker night? What red-blooded Aussie housewife didn’t aspire to her own Hills Hoist in her own backyard? So iconic is the humble Hills that it featured in the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Lord only knows what the international audience made of it, but who cares! It’s ours and yes, we’re damned proud of it.

    So, Australians all let us rejoice, let us honour the genius of the man who gave us all this: I hereby declare our new national day to be Hills Day, 15th December. Lance Hill, take a bow, sir. We salute you.

  • Back in the dark ages of my primary schooling, we were taught that Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1770 and that the British settled here in 1788; the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson on 26th January. We knew that the first settlement was a penal colony and we learned that the aborigines were a primitive, nomadic people who were given beads and other trinkets in order to ensure that the settlement could be peaceful. We now know that what we were taught was lies. Total, unmitigated, baldfaced lies.

    Captain Cook was the first to chart the east coast of Australia, an achievement not to be underestimated, but the Dutch and Portuguese knew about the existence of the country for at least a century before Cook’s arrival. The true ‘discovery’ of the country, however, had occurred at least 60,000 years prior to the arrival of white men, and quite likely much earlier, by a race of people who were far from primitive and nomadic and whose land and social management were adapted and perfectly suited to a large and diverse continent.

    The day we call Australia Day is, in fact, the anniversary of the second landing of the male convicts. Doesn’t sound quite so auspicious, does it? The entire First Fleet (quick test: how many ships were there?*) was in place in Botany Bay by the 18th January. This means that the first of the ships probably arrived a week or more prior to that.

    The ships carrying the male convicts sailed up the coast and entered Port Jackson through the Heads, landing on the 26th. It is the anniversary of the landing at what became Sydney. It’s Sydney Day. This fact alone should mean that no one in Victoria or Queensland would want anything to do with it, nor, for that matter, anyone in the west where a healthy distrust of anything east of the Nullabor is de rigeur. No wonder history was massaged.

    image1We also know that the peaceful settlement of the country never occurred. From the outset, British troops were ordered to shoot to kill any natives who approached the colony. There are over 80 massacres of aboriginal people on the record, beginning in 1788 and continuing through to the 1920s. And these are just the ones on the record. Thus began the official attempt at genocide that culminated with the stealing of ‘mixed race’ children between the 1910s and the 1970s. It seems that the government turned to a bureaucratic form of genocide once the violent method seemed not to be working.

    Hardly any wonder that many Australians are calling for a change of the date of our ‘national day’. It’s neither national nor is it a cause for celebration.

    Will changing the date of Australia Day change history? No. But there's two two things that can start to atone for those wrongs:

    Mounted police and blacksFirstly, teach the truth. Ensure that young Australians at school in the 21st Century learn the truth about the colonisation and settlement of this country. Teach them about the horrors of genocide and the brutality of taking land. Colonialism is not a pretty story in any language; and that story is told in many languages. The British, Dutch, French, Germans, Spanish, Portuguese and Belgians all bear the stain of colonial horrors in their histories. Teaching the truth of these horrors won’t change the past, but it may change the future.

    Secondly, move quickly towards becoming a republic. Successive governments have indicated that there will be no such move while Queen Elizabeth remains on the throne, but in August last year, the Queen announced that should she still be alive when she turns 95, she will request that the Regency Act of 1937 be invoked, which will pass all regal duties to her heir. The Queen turns 92 in April this year. We have three years to prepare for our own transition. Then we can have a national day that belongs to all of us.

    Images: the top one - what we were taught (awestruck natives treating the new arrivals like gods); the bottom one - what happened (natives armed with spears used only for hunting being mowed down by mounted troops).

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