Federal Politics

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There's never been a less exciting public holiday than Australia Day

One of Malcolm Turnbull's favourite things to talk about is what an exciting time it is to be an Australian.

Happy Australia Day from Deadpool

Donning a cork hat, Ryan Reynolds as Marvel superhero Deadpool wishes everyone a happy Australia Day.

He has been Prime Minister for four months now and still he has not tired of the phrase.

Even when he was in Washington this week, he told our American friends of the excitement of being a present-day Australian – as if it was the freshest punchline he'd ever delivered.

So here's betting that during celebrations for our pending national day, "there's never been a more exciting time ..." will get a trot out.

But if I were the Prime Minister (or his speechwriter), I'd be using a different line next week. Something along the lines of: "there has never been a less exciting public holiday than Australia Day".

In the litter of annual days off, it is the runt.

At Easter we get chocolate, on Anzac Day we get ceremony and meaning and the Queen's Birthday brings a blessed mid-year long weekend. At Christmas, there are presents and Boxing Day (the best of all) is about sleeping in and not having to cook anything or visit anyone.

Illustration: Michael Mucci
Illustration: Michael Mucci 

But on Australia Day, we get hokeyness on a grand scale.

To start with, there are the tedious lead-up traditions.

Australia Day: barbecue-based.
Australia Day: barbecue-based. Photo: Jim Rice

Like the bolshie advertising campaigns to get people to barbecue some sort of animal on the 26th - preferably lamb - that inevitably outrage the non-meat eating community.

This year, Meat and Livestock Australia had an absolute bulls-eye with its ad featuring commandos blowtorching a vegan hipster's food supply. In the middle of all this, the clip also (joking-not-joking) assumes chilled-out blokeyness, cold beer and backyard cricket to be the hallmarks of Australianism.

Is Australia Day the least exciting public holiday?
Is Australia Day the least exciting public holiday? Photo: David Freund

Another custom of the season is major retailers having to pull offensive merchandise from their shelves. A couple of years ago, Aldi had to apologise for selling T-shirts bearing "Australia est. 1788" slogans. This year, Woolies is in trouble for forgetting Tasmania on its Australia Day caps.

Because Australia Day wouldn't be Australia Day if there wasn't some sort of mindless exclusion beforehand.

Is this the face of Australia Day? Illustration: Simon Letch
Is this the face of Australia Day? Illustration: Simon Letch 

Then, when you get to the formal celebrations, it's as if there was a national memo to round up every Australian cliche and either supersize, congregate or race it.

There's the annual "iconic" attempt to break the world record for the number of giant inflatable thongs out on the ocean, sponsored by a prominent Brazilian footwear manufacturer.

2016 Australia Day address

Defence Lawyer and refugee advocate, Deng Thiak Adut, delivers the 2016 Australia Day address at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Sydney prides itself on its ferrython, where the balloon festooned vessels scurry up the harbour with all the drama and dignity of a novelty turtle race.

Not that animals aren't included elsewhere in the program. There's also a stand up paddle board race where you compete with your dog. In Melbourne there are kangaroo races. In Brisbane it's cockroaches.

Indeed, there's also a strong tendency towards the wacky or off-piste.

A Blue Mountains listing on the national events calendar is, "Australia Day Celebrations and Gnome Convention". Other community activities around Australia include a reptile display, dunking machine, rooftop table tennis and gumboot throwing.

To make matters even less appealing, when it comes to live music to celebrate the day, there is a disconcerting reliance on former X Factor contestants and Jimmy Barnes. And something hideous happens to people's outfits as the Australian flag is turned into singlets, bucket hats, sarongs, capes, fake nails, temporary tattoos and bikinis.

Of course, these are not the only aspects of Australia Day.

In among the racing roaches and overcooked chops, there are the citizenship ceremonies where so many people from so many different places take sincere pride and joy in becoming an official Australian.

And there are the awards that honour people for doing good and amazing deeds in their communities and professions.

This year's crop shows that more than ever, thoughtful progress is being made.

Even five years ago, it would have been hard to imagine the Australian of the Year nominees including a retired general-turned-gender-equality advocate, a lawyer who got corporate men to take feminism seriously and a leading figure in the transgender community.

It is also a leap forward that they are vying to take over from a woman who through her own remarkable courage – and the willingness of the public to confront the issue – has helped put domestic violence on the national agenda.

But all of this struggles to be heard across the din of cliches and supposed-to-be-funny kitsch.

Some might say that the way we do Australia Day is inherently Australian. It's barbecue-based, it's outdoors, and for the most part, doesn't take itself seriously.

Some might also say that cultural cringe is so 1960s (we're not Britain or the United States, so get over it).

But something still jars. While Australia continues to grow up during the rest of the year, on our national day we revert to the juvenile.

Maybe we do this because we're still a relatively young country and the concept of a nationwide public holiday on January 26 is even younger (only 22 years old). Our traditions and ceremonies are a work in progress.

Or maybe Australia Day doesn't make the grade because there's an inherent awkwardness about it, anyway.

It is difficult to be feel truly connected to it as a national day when a significant number of Australians don't see January 26 as a cause for celebration (see: those Aldi t-shirts).

Much easier to jump on a lilo shaped like a thong or make a joke about vegans than think about what that means. Or what to do about it.

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