A dummy's guide to Oz day

The Jakarta Post, 26 January 2006.

At last year′s Australia Day celebrations in Surabaya, organized by the Indonesia-Australia Business Council′s East Java branch, the MC asked the gathering a most embarrassing question:

"What does the day actually celebrate?"

A loud silence followed. There was much staring at the ceiling and scrutiny of fingernails before visiting Queenslander Rob Wardrobe (who represents his state in Jakarta) offered a mangled version of history.

Then everyone got back to the serious business of drinking lots of beer.

Cynics say there′s one true test for a genuine Australian: If he or she doesn′t know the second verse of the national anthem then they′re abso-bloody-lutely Dinky-Di.

Nationalism doesn′t go down too well with Australians despite the Federal government′s best efforts to instill national pride amongst school kids who have to grin and bear it. Were happy to shout Ozzie-Ozzie-Ozzie when thrashing some other former colony at cricket, but shy from ostentatious displays of love for homeland.

It seems many Australians agree with the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson′s aphorism: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

There′ll be a few flags fluttering outside suburban homes in Australia this Thursday and more at official offices. But nothing like the Aug. 17 displays in Indonesia or the shows of Stars and Stripes in the U.S. on any day.

Of course the Australian flag isn′t the most inspiring design, with the Union Jack prominent in the top corner. Can you imagine Malaysia, Singapore, India or even Canada retaining this symbol of their colonial past?

And if you can spot the difference between the Australian flag and its New Zealand counterpart you′re obviously an emblematist with excellent eyesight.

There′s even a national organization called Ausflag dedicated to developing a new flag. Does any Indonesian want to change the Merah Putih?

Offerings range from the ludicrous to the ridiculous. The contribution of Melbourne artist and poet Michael Leunig has became the most famous: It shows a flag of corrugated iron, Australia′s ubiquitous all purpose roofing, fencing and building material.

Apart from the flag furor, the issue of republicanism usually gets exhumed at this time of the year.

At a referendum in 1999 Australians opted to retain the Queen of England as their head of state. Indonesians find this beyond belief and proof that their big neighbor remains a colony of Europe.

Trying to explain otherwise is just a waste of time as the incredulous have all logic on their side. Like the Queen′s image on coins and the A$5 note.

Republicans want an Australian to be the Governor General or President. They′ve coined the proletarian phrase ′A Mate for Head of State′ to try and arouse the plebs, only to be greeted with a big yawn.

Even knowing the Queen will eventually give up Europe′s top job in favor of her big-eared son Charles and his big-haired consort Camilla doesn′t seem to excite anyone, unless it′s a giggle.

The prince′s peccadilloes in the dysfunctional royal family would challenge a sinetron scriptwriter. Despite this the Queen retains respect. The institution is powerless and therefore harmless, and it′s good for the tabloids.

So if nationalism can′t stir the possum Down Under, what can? Sport is the great arouser and Australia Day is a fine excuse to whack a ball around on the beach before watching a fireworks display and demolishing a few cartons of grog.

On Jan. 26, 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip took formal possession of the colony of New South Wales and became its first governor to the astonishment and later regret of the Aboriginal inhabitants of the Great South Land.

The dispossessed have now labeled Jan. 26 as the Day of Mourning.

The official slogan is "Celebrate what′s great". This is about as meaningful as a party political ad and just as grating.

Many think the event best forgotten and all energies put into Anzac Day, April 25. This was when Australian troops first landed on Turkey′s Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915 in support of the "Mother Country" in her war with Germany and its allies.

Like Heroes′ Day on 10 November in Indonesia this is a solemn occasion to remember the dead of all wars who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Unlike Indonesia there are few war cemeteries. Australia′s battles have been fought overseas and the big graveyards, like the beautiful one at Tantui in Kota Ambon, are far from home.

Some politicians want Jan. 1 remembered. On this date in 1901 Australia became the Commonwealth without recourse to bloodshed.

The proverb: Happy is the country that has no history may have been written by the mysterious and prolific Anon. But most Okkers would reckon he or she must have been an Aussie commenting on Godzone.

On what? In the Queen′s English this translates as: God′s Own Land.

The writer is an author "The People Next Door – Understanding Indonesia" (University of Western Australia Press) and currently living in East Java.

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