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Australia Day: Pride and prejudice

Australia Day. Funny name, isn't it? There isn't an England Day, a France Day, a New Zealand Day or an Indonesia Day, though most nations set days aside for national reflection and celebration – Bastille Day, Thanksgiving Day, Waitangi Day – and such days usually recognise a seminal, often revolutionary, event in a nation's history.

Federation Day would have been the obvious choice for us, but it was trumped by New Year's Day. Anzac Day is riding high, and perhaps Republic Day lies in our future.

Still, Australia Day has become useful at least as a marker, signalling the end of the Long Australian Lunch that begins each year on Melbourne Cup day.

The establishment in 1788 of a European settlement on a continent that was already populated by more than 400 indigenous nations was significant, to say the least, though no cause for celebration if you happened to be a member of one of those nations. The arrival of the First Fleet ushered in 200 years of moral blindness towards Indigenous people that eventually led to a national apology to the stolen generations in 2008.

Moral blindness is, of course, a very contemporary problem as well. With the encouragement of leaders on both sides of politics, we risk becoming morally blind to our responsibilities towards those who have come here as refugees seeking asylum. We can tip-toe around this and speak of human rights abuses, or a failure to honour our international treaty obligations. But why mince words in the face of the intentional brutality – psychological and physical – being inflicted by Australia on asylum-seekers, including children, imprisoned in our offshore detention centres? Why not call our asylum-seeker detention policy what it is: immoral.

It's immoral because it treats people who have committed no crime as if they were criminals. It's immoral because it fails to honour a moral principle we would normally claim as one of Australia's core values: fairness. It's immoral because it fails the basic test of human decency: treating other people with dignity and respect. Would be really enshrine "the end justifies the means" as a principle to be celebrated on Australia Day?

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Celebration is vacuous triumphalism unless it can accommodate such reflections. On this day, as on Anzac Day, we like to reflect on the seductive idea of "national identity". Who are we? What does it mean to be an Australian?

As a social researcher, I have always found such questions unsettling and slightly cringeworthy. Even in cities like Melbourne or Sydney, no one knows what it means to be a Melburnian or a Sydneysider because everyone thinks their little pocket is typical. We all interpret the meaning of "Australian" — and "unAustralian" — through the prism of our own prejudices based on our own experience.

Talk of national identity generally veers towards the heroic and self-serving: irony seems to be on the wane. Even when we say apparently self-deprecatory things like "we're all larrikins at heart", we're really bragging about not being cowed by authority or convention – patently absurd, by the way, as a blanket description of how we actually live. When we claim "mateship" or "the fair go" as unique dimensions of our national character, we forget that mateship, Aussie-style, is a vestige of a white male-supremacist culture, and that every civilised country on earth values freedom, co-operation, mutual support and equal opportunity – the French were embracing liberte, fraternite, egalite even before the first boatload of free settlers had arrived in Sydney.

So what about those famous "core values" we trumpet on days like today? Can you spot the difference between ours and those of any other civil society? We're a good example of a stable, Western, liberal democracy and we have every right to place a high value on our membership of that privileged group of nations. But we need to guard against the arrogant assumption that any of those values are uniquely ours.

Many Australians like to claim we're a Christian country, and it's true that the churches were hugely influential in laying the foundations of Australian culture, especially in education. But although 61 per cent of us ticked "Christian" in the last census, only 8 per cent attend church weekly. One the other hand, "the Muslim threat" that has spooked so many Australians is hard to find: only 2.2 per cent of the population is Muslim, and our fastest-growing religion is actually Hinduism.

Others will say we are a sporting nation, consistently punching above our weight in international competition. Yet we are noticeably less sports-mad than many other countries (try Britain), and we are acquiring an ugly reputation for sledging, poor sportsmanship and general boorishness. So what should we celebrate?

Surely our greatest source of justifiable pride is that we have become a shining example to the world of how to build a harmonious society out of a remarkably diverse group of immigrants, starting in 1788 with that motley collection of convicted criminals.

Though they were mostly British, they included French, African and American convicts, so the seeds of diversity were sown at the very beginning.

If Australia Day is for pondering Australian society – rather than simply rejoicing in the fact that we're here, and it's summer – perhaps we should stop asking "what is an Australian?" and focus on the kind of society we are creating. There is much to be proud of, much to celebrate, much to look forward to.

But we should also acknowledge that all is not well. Millions of Australians, many of them young, currently suffer from depression or anxiety, domestic violence is rife, and there's a tougher sense of mistrust and intolerance creeping into our culture. Stark and growing income inequality mocks our claim to be an egalitarian society. Social fragmentation and shrinking households increase the risk of loneliness.

On a day like this, we would do well to remember those trapped in the shadows of such trends. They, too, are Australians.

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and author.

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