Looking for the cultural point of gravity in the Australia Day debate

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Sometimes I ask myself: “Futuro, why do you keep picking the biggest, hairiest issues to look at?” And then I remember it’s because they’re the most fun to think about. Australia Day just passed this weekend. Because the holiday is nationwide it becomes a cultural artifact; a prism that refracts and amplifies people’s varying beliefs, agendas and hopes for the future. It is also a great example of how mass communication and public opinion shape and fuel each other.

For those readers who aren’t from Australia: The day marks the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships in Australia. It also marks a long weekend and the last public holiday before school recommences.

Even during the 10+ years that I’ve lived in Australia, the way the day is perceived has shifted. I remember it being considered to be “fine” and a day to celebrate our “Lucky Country” when I first arrived, but maybe that was also my age and circle of friends. It’s harder to argue the fact that there’s an increasingly negative sentiment in public discourse - even if the majority of the public is still in favour of the day

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#ChangeTheDate is becoming an increasingly popular discussion point. It’s easy to see why: Firstly, there’s something crass about celebrating on a day that marks the beginning of Indigenous Australia’s colonisation. Secondly public discourse is becoming increasingly focused on issues of identity due to what I’m just going to lazily call The Awokening (even if I don’t define it any further I think you all have feeling for what that means).

This second point is what comedian/activist/smart-ass Friendlyjordies hones in on as insincere in his critique of the #ChangeTheDate movement and sentiment. He points out that until as recently as 2016, click baity left leaning media capitalised on Australia Day through brand sponsorships, parties and pop quizzes.

Pedestrian in 2017

Pedestrian in 2017

Pedestrian in 2016

Pedestrian in 2016

Junkee (who just as an aside are owned by a billboard vendor now) in 2017

Junkee (who just as an aside are owned by a billboard vendor now) in 2017

Junkee in 2016

Junkee in 2016

So he argues that their new embrace of an anti-Australia Day editorial agenda is a calculated branding effort rather than anything brave. The implication is that by extension their readership is also just sloganeering.

Well… that’s the gist of his argument - there’s more fart jokes! Jordies is heavily influenced by Chomsky’s view that media agendas are often distraction fires that mainly serve to keep the ruling class in power. If you apply that lens the argument makes a lot of sense. #ChangeTheDate (see how I keep using it as a hashtag?) is an agenda that is easily grasped and also creates a convenient polarisation: Be left wing and for it or right wing and against it. It’s easily digestible and stirs something in everyone.

But let’s put aside the media theory lens and Jordies’ deep-rooted hatred of listicle media to look more closely at the various social groups and their views.

Jordies cites a stat that says “only” 54% of Indigenous Australians are in favour of a change of date, to make the point that the issue isn’t important to the cultural group that the likes of Mamamia, Buzzfeed and Pedestrian are alleging to defend. But the McNair yellowSquares national poll where Jordies found that stat also states that among Indigenous Australians, only 23% felt positive about Australia Day, 31% were negative and 30% had mixed feelings. So straight away a different picture emerges.

If you work as a strategist or in any role that requires you to convince others of a certain narrative, you will recognise the difference between trying to let data reveal its own story and cherry picking data to tell your story. Or as Pennay and Bonglorno put it in their article in The Conversation:

“In the cultural warfare over whether January 26 should be retained as Australia Day, survey results are deployed like guided missiles.”

According to their data it it is true that as of January 2019, 70% respondents agreed that the current date, January 26th “...is the best day for our national day of celebration.”

But it’s also true that that agreement varies across gender, political parties and perhaps most importantly age.

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The older generations in particular feel attached to the date because it “celebrates our British culture and heritage” a viewpoint that appears to be slowly dying out in younger generations.

Some more stats on the Indigenous side of things: “Nearly three in ten (29%) of respondents who agree with having Australia Day on January 26 also recognise the date is offensive to Indigenous people.” Which sure says something about that group’s interest in Indigenous voices.

There is a school of thought that non-Indigenous Australia does understand why the date is offensive to so many Aboriginal people, however they value its placement in the calendar -the last summer public holiday before the school year starts- more. Again according to the McNair yellowSquares survey: “When participants were invited to associate three words with Australia Day, Australians polled chose barbecue, celebration and holiday.”

Yes the majority of Australians still favour the day, but it is worth asking why might makes right even though the majority is mainly standing in defence of performative ockerisms, thongs, barbies and our archaic ties to the British Royal family.c

Oh look! Pedestrian has irrelevant things to say about almost everything.

Oh look! Pedestrian has irrelevant things to say about almost everything.

By contrast the three words Indigenous Australians picked in the same study were: “Invasion, survival and murder.”

So considering how different the stakes are I’ll end this one with a link to an Indigenous voice: Professor Tom Calma -Chancellor at the University of Canberra- who presents his for case why the date should be changed.

~Read: A modern and united Australia must shift its national day from January 26~