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The Maastricht Diplomat

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How Australia Day is Dividing Australians

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

It is that time of the year again when there are special ads about lamb on Australian television and the annual debate of refusing to recognise the British Queen as Head of State resurfaces. January 26th marks Australia Day, the Australian equivalent to the American 4th of July. It marks the landing of Captain Cook and the First Fleet in Port Jackson, Sydney, which occurred in 1788 (never mind the fact that the Dutch had arrived there before the British, plus the fact that the Aborigines had been there for thousands of years). The day is filled with barbeques, beach, drinks and sports.

January 26th however, is not celebrated by all as Australia Day. In fact, many people resent the fact that this particular day, the day that white man arrived on the shores of Australia to settle it as a British colony, is Australia’s national holiday. Whilst Australia’s history may not be that long, it is certainly violent. The indigenous people, the Aborigines, were forcefully driven from their lands, tribes were killed and they were treated as objects and animals rather than people by the colony’s administration. It went as far as removing children from their parents to raise them in white schools; the Stolen Generation. Only recently has an Australian Prime Minister officially apologised for the committed atrocities. Despite this apology, Aboriginals are still marginalised in society and many refer to January 26th as ‘Invasion Day’. So, whilst there are feelings of celebration in the air around this time of year, tension and anger can also be felt.  

Aside from this controversy, Australia Day is supposedly one for all Australians to show their national pride and celebrate the great country that they live in. The lead-up to these celebrations has however taken on a slightly more political tone in recent times, due to continued international REFUGEE crisis around the globe. Even though Australia is something of an international backwater, the effects of the refugee crisis can still be felt and some Australians feel similarly anxious about the supposed ‘influx’ of refugees as some Europeans do. This can especially be seen this year in the reactions to the traditional Australia day adverts.

As already mentioned, in the lead-up to Australia Day there are special advertisements promoting the consumption of lamb, starring Australian icons, reflecting on Australia’s history and generally promoting the festivities. However, this year, two advertisements have sparked controversy and debate amongst the Australian public, for reasons that I do not quite understand.

The first advertisement, which airs on national television, begins by showing a beautiful beach, on which three Aborigines prepare for a barbeque. It continues by showing the arrival of settlors from the Netherlands, the UK, France, Germany, China, Italy, Greece, New Zealand and various other cultures, with each new arriving party providing a little something from their home-country to the party. As the beach continues to fill up with people of all colours, races and cultures, a trawler filled with refugees is seen arriving. Someone calls out ‘Look, it’s the boat people’, to which another replies ‘Aren’t we all boat people?’ After everyone has pondered this, the Aboriginal says ‘And you’re welcome’.

Featuring a number of Australian icons, including comedians, TV celebrities and sporting legends, I find that the advertisement beautifully captures the Australian spirit, whilst reminding everyone that the Aboriginals are the only ‘true’ Australians and that everyone else in fact came from a different part of the world. Personally, I greatly enjoy this advert, which combines humour and is a celebration of Australia’s rich and vibrant diversity.

From a political perspective, the advertisement can be seen as criticism of Australia’s refugee policy, which can be described as extremely conservative. Despite being one of the largest countries on Earth geographically, Australia has agreed to accommodate roughly 20.000 refugees annually, raising this number from around 14.000. For those keeping up with the information about the refugee crisis in Europe, these numbers seem ridiculously, even pathetically low. However, Australian politicians are applauding themselves for their increased ‘humanitarianism’. Aside from the overall policy being from the former century, the overall attitude does little to help. Despite being an extremely multicultural country, the term ‘boat people’ has a rather negative connotation and a former Australian Prime Minister won an election on the back of the promise to ‘turn back the boats’.

The same fear that many Europeans feel, that the refugees will steal the identity and the culture of their country has caused negative reactions to this advert. Many vehemently refuse to be incorporated into the term ‘boat people’, stating that they were born in Australia and as such have no connection to any immigration whatsoever.

However, I believe that this misses the point. The ad shows that Australia belonged to the Aboriginal people and that all those who now live there, only do some because of settlers from other countries. It also proudly proves that Australia is a land of many cultures and many people and that all are welcome. This is truly something to take pride in and to feel offended by it reflects an unreasonable fear of foreigners that needs to be overcome, if we wish to solve any of the current crisis that humanity is faced with. If people really wanted to complain about something, they should address the fact that during a shot of Australia, Tasmania seems to have gone missing…

However, the celebration of diversity found in this particular advert is not the only thing causing controversy this Australia Day. The second advertisement in question takes the form of a large billboard and has caused, in my opinion, even pettier feelings of dissent. In the picture, two young girls wearing hijabs can be seen smiling into the camera, both waving Australian flags.

The advertisement was taken down after a number of threats were made to both the billboard company and the girls shown in the picture. Many found that the ad was un-Australian and it seemed that the depiction of two young Muslim girls as Australian made viewers uncomfortable. Luckily, to show the rest of the world that Australians do have a heart, a counter-campaign was launched to re-instate the advertisement of the girls.

To oppose this picture and have the audacity to call it un-Australian is truly remarkable, bordering on shameful. It does show what some people think when it comes to questions of migration, multiculturalism and race and that these thoughts are fearful, despite the fact that Australia is by no means accepting anywhere near the same number of refugees as European countries. Once again, it is important to say that being Australian does not depend on skin colour, religion, etc. Australia’s multiculturalism is something to be cherished and it provides a fantastic opportunity for more cultures to be integrated into society.

Despite all the controversy, January 26th is still Australia Day and is still a day to celebrate everything that defines this country, from its history and its culture to its people. Both advertisements discussed in this article do exactly that, they capture the spirit of the people and the diversity. It is important that people do not let themselves be driven by fear to diminish them or to diminish the fact that Australia is multicultural and that this only adds to the country. As The Seekers say ‘I am, you are, we are Australian’.


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