The rage against Australia Day
Woke corporates and activists are waging war on Australian history.
The civic monuments to Captain James Cook in Melbourne, Australia have been a magnet for pranksters for well over a century. Newspaper archives record the violation of a newly inaugurated statue of Cook in the suburb of St Kilda during the Christmas festivities of 1914. The Age reported that an unidentified group of ‘facetious people… tied a “straw decker” hat in a rakish manner on his head’.
A week later, the pranksters returned under the cover of darkness to dress the Captain’s head with a bell topper, much to the annoyance of St Kilda’s chief engineer for public works, Carlo Catani. According to reports, Catani, ‘with much indignation’, ordered the hat’s removal and promised to pay a ‘reward for information leading to the conviction of the jester’.
We can but wonder what Catani, a stocky, bearded Italian known for his unfailing courtesy, would have made of the violent attack on the same Cook statue more than a century later. Last week, on the eve of Australia Day, the metal figure was hacked off at the knees by hotheads armed with angle grinders. It was followed within days by the toppling of a stone monument to Captain Cook at the entrance to Edinburgh Gardens in the Melbourne inner-city suburb of Fitzroy North. Those vandals embellished their work by spraypainting the words, ‘cook the colony’.
A nation’s character should not be judged by aberrant behaviour like these acts of performative vandalism. A more accurate measure of the social temperature is what happens next, whether those in authority feel obliged to put things right or shrug their shoulders and move on. Sadly, the news isn’t good on this front, either.
Catani was part of a generation of civic-minded people who shared great pride in their adopted country. Their monuments expressed admiration for pioneers who had transformed Australia from a nation of scattered hunter-gatherers to one of the freest and most prosperous places on Earth. This was achieved in less than a century and a half by people with high ideals. The first Australians brought no slaves with them, and they believed that respect should be shared equally by all, including Australia’s original inhabitants.
Every schoolchild in 1914 would have been familiar with the achievements of James Cook. He was a hero of the British Enlightenment who navigated the eastern coast of Australia on a voyage of scientific discovery. His aim was to chart the transit of Venus. His ship, the HMS Endeavour, carried an astronomer, three naturalists, two artists, a single gunner and only one marine. There was no room for a chaplain, let alone a missionary. Cook was not preparing for a military offensive. He embarked on his voyage to the other side of the world not to preach or invade, but to learn. But if Melbourne’s local councillors know anything about Cook’s achievements, then they clearly don’t value them much. Perhaps they even see them as reprehensible. They have displayed an indifference to last week’s vandalism that is far more troubling than the act itself.
An email sent by a council officer for the Yarra City Council, where the attack on the Edinburgh Gardens stone monument took place, noted drily that the vandals had contributed to ‘the poor integrity of the object’. The email also claimed that the Cook memorial had ‘little or no significance’.
Another councillor, Stephen Jolly, who was elected as a member of the Victorian Socialists, said there were better ways to spend public money than restoring statues. ‘Residents want better bin services, more childcare services, cheaper swimming pools’, he said. ‘All of these things are a better way of spending the money [than] on a statue that we know is absolutely certain to get ripped down again.’
A full meeting of the council will determine the fate of Cook’s effigy, but the chances that its dignity will be restored are low. In 2017, Yarra was the first council in the country to cancel its traditional Australia Day celebrations, held on 26 January, the anniversary of the arrival of the first convicts in Sydney Cove. The council’s website describes that date as ‘a day of mourning, pain and disconnection for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our community… We hope that, as a nation, we can find a day that is inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’
Resolutions made by Australian local councils usually carry little weight. State and federal government decisions are far more consequential. Yet local councils still play a crucial role in Australian civic life, not least as they organise citizenship ceremonies for new Australians. In Victoria, 40 per cent of local councils now refuse to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day. This is despite the fact that many migrants, myself included, consider that moment when we raised our right hands as a symbol of allegiance to Australia to be one of the happiest of our lives. The certificate signed by the mayor is far more precious than the fattest lottery ticket, granting people citizenship of a country that is probably the best on Earth.
Attempts to undermine Australia’s national day have been gathering pace for at least a decade. This year, the fervour of anti-patriotism has been more heated than ever. Last year’s defeat of the Voice to Parliament referendum proposal, which would have given Aboriginal people exceptional representation to parliament, was a blow to so-called anti-colonial activists. Australia has yet to fully reckon with the outcome. The increased radicalisation evidenced by the toppling of Cook’s statue appears to be part of the backlash.
Yet before we conclude that Australia is spiralling towards some anarchic dystopia, we should switch to the wide-angle lens and put the clownish behaviour in Melbourne in proper perspective. After all, in Melbourne, some 77 per cent voted in favour of bestowing extra rights to Aboriginal people on account of their race. Doubtless, there are many in this woke enclave who do not know anyone who voted No in the Voice referendum. It is not a city that’s representative of Australia.
The calls to abolish Australia Day may be louder this year, but a disastrous adventure by the largest supermarket chain shows it cuts no traction with most Australians. Woolworths announced early in January that it would not be stocking Australia Day merchandise this year. Australians in search of napkins, banners, t-shirts, stubby-holders, flip-flops and beach towels adorned with the Australian flag would have to take their custom elsewhere.
The backlash was immediate. Opposition leader Peter Dutton led the calls to boycott Woolworths. The chief executive, Brad Banducci, then issued an apology of sorts, admitting that the decision had gone down badly. ‘I’m sorry for the angst that it’s caused’, he told radio channel 2GB. ‘What we have noticed is an unacceptable level of aggression towards our team, and it’s unfair to take it out on them.’
Australia’s corporate and political establishment has been slow to come to terms with the change in the cultural landscape caused by last year’s referendum defeat. Australians who once felt isolated and unable to voice their dissent against elite orthodoxy now know that at least 60 per cent of Australians feel the same way. If the date of Australia Day were to be put to the vote, support for the status quo would be even higher, judging by opinion polls.
I spent Australia Day this year on the long drive from South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula to Broken Hill in outback New South Wales. Some 100km out of Broken Hill, I stopped at the pub in Olary, population four. Country people had driven from homes up to an hour and a half away to enjoy a beer and a lamb barbecue, the traditional tucker of Australia Day. ‘What is it with Woolworths?’, one farmer asked me. ‘Don’t they know we had a vote, and they lost?’
Outside the capital-city bubbles, the 60-40 defeat of the referendum was far more than a rejection of a narrowly worded constitutional amendment to establish a so-called Voice to Parliament. It was a rejection of the entire identity-politics shooting match.
Australia Day and the civic pride it engenders will never be cancelled by elite decree or any jumped-up council. It belongs to the Australian people. Long may they gather in defiant acts of celebration.
Nick Cater is a senior fellow at the Menzies Research Centre in Sydney and publishes Reality Bites on Substack.
Picture by: Getty.
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