It’s Australia Day: for readers outside Australia that means it‘s 26 January. Our national holiday commemorates the landing at Sydney Cove of the First Fleet from Britain in 1788. Indigenous Australians have little to rejoice in this, perhaps, but the day has certainly come to be a celebration of Australian life and culture. It happens in the height of the cricket season and during the Australian Tennis Open in Melbourne; this year it also coincides with our hosting the Asian Cup soccer so Australians who love their sport have plenty to be excited about.
I’ve noticed over the years that the celebration of Australia Day seems to receive more media attention these days- but then, so does Anzac Day. World events and national politics have put us more in the mood for national reflection, I think. At the moment, Australia Day is for uncritical celebration and Anzac day is for more sober reflection. Some of this reflection, of course, is partial, chauvinistic and cringe-worthy. Apparently the budget to celebrate the centenary of Gallipoli is four times what the British spent in their commemoration of the outbreak of World War 1. Much of this is driven, I think, by the Commonwealth government’s political agenda. But even in the naff and vulgar stuff, there’s a core that connects and stirs the heart.
And it erupts in unexpected ways. In November, Australians watched the Lindt Café siege in Martin Place with horror. In comparison with terrorist outrages overseas, the death toll was mercifully low, perhaps, but the action was played out on the television in the very centre of our largest city – and only about one hundred metres from the place where the First Fleet came ashore. After the siege, Australians felt anger and sorrow in large measures – but if they were like me, they also felt a tremendous pride in the way Australians reacted to the crisis. Australian government agencies and the police had already shown great patience with the violent, disturbed man at the centre of the siege. The police showed incredible restraint, trying to resolve the siege peacefully. The Special Forces who launched the rescue mission once terrorist began shooting hostages were also highly professional. For once, political leaders like the NSW Premier struck just the right note. I was moved to tears by the fact that the media celebrated the Manager of the Lindt Café as the hero of the siege. He was a young man who was clearly loved and respected and whose self-sacrificing courage at the end was extraordinary. Oh, and he was also gay and the media dealt with this in a respectful way and featured the grief of both his partner and his family. We’ve come some way as a people, I think, when a person’s sexuality is treated so respectfully. It hasn’t always been so.