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My Convict Heart


Two days ago was 'Australia Day' – a national public holiday that’s all about unifying a nation, but is also a pretty contentious occasion.

January 26 is the date the First Fleet of convict ships arrived from Great Britain in 1788 and the Union Jack was raised at Sydney Cove.

But although for the British, that day was something to celebrate – conquering a new land and offloading their prisoners while they were at it – it was a disaster for the country’s indigenous population. Given the oppression and humiliation, the slaughter and disease, and the loss of lands, languages and culture that followed for Australia’s First Peoples, it's little wonder they refer to January 26 as Invasion Day rather than Australia Day.

"The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788" / Original [oil] sketch [1937] by Algernon Talmage R.A. Courtesy of State Library of New South Wales, a128112

Nor was it a cause for celebration for the arriving convicts, who suffered horrendous conditions and abuses. Curiously, however, January 26 became the day those early convicts chose to celebrate their new country. Or perhaps what they were celebrating was their survival in it!

Our national holiday remains a mixed bag of politics, partying, remembrance and commemoration. There's a lot of official fanfare, with parades and honours and special events; there are people who use it simply as a chance to get together with family and friends; and there are people who choose to march in protest.

I like that diversity. And I like the way the country goes into debate mode in the lead up to the big day, asking what we're celebrating, what we've forgotten along the way, and what being Australian actually means, as people and as a unified nation.

I even like the fact that an irreverently funny television advertisement encouraging Aussies to eat barbecued lamb on Australia Day can become the most complained about commercial in Australian history, with people variously angered by its insensitive appropriation of the Aboriginal word 'boomerang', incensed by its violence, and appalled at its treatment of non-meat eaters. Some have even asked the burning question: who decided lamb was our national meat?

As for me…

I happen to like eating barbecued lamb chops, but I didn’t eat them on Australia Day and I don’t really care if lamb is our national dish – in fact, if there’s a vote on that, I’m going for prawns. (Unless wine can in any way be construed as a food group, in which case, naturally, it’s all about the grape!)

I love Australia, but I don't feel more 'Australian' on Australia Day than on any other day. In fact, my 'Australianness' was embedded in me long before January 26 came into official existence as 'the' national day. My Aussie identity is the product of a childhood spent playing with the Aboriginal kids from next door out the back of my father's Redfern fruit shop, and moving to an ugly fibro house in Sydney's sprawling south-west for my formative years, and being called a 'wog' at school and a 'westie' when making the long trek to the beach.

And that British invasion on January 26 is not what I’d consider the defining moment of this country – although it's certainly one. There are just so many other proud and tragic and exhilarating and reflective moments in our history, from the people who were here first, through the British years, to the waves of immigrants from all over the world who have come here – and continue to come here – in search of a better life.

In fact, I'd say that despite being a product of relatively recent – and (I think) law-abiding – immigration (Irish and Italian), I suspect it’s those early partying convicts I have most in common with when it comes to Australia Day: I’m here and I’m grateful for that, so yes, I'll raise a glass. To the past, but also to a better future for all of us. I know it's after the fact, but if you're interested in Australia Day, here are three articles with different perspectives that I found fascinating reading ahead of this year's big day.



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