Australia Day is upon us, the one day of the year when we forget our usual aversion toward patriotism and public nudity and ask ourselves, what does it mean to be Australian?
Without a defined culture we have nothing to do in those awkward first hours of Australia Day when it’s still too early to get drunk.
In their annual attempt to isolate our national character many politicians and commentators identify "freedom" as a crucial ingredient in being Australian. We hear it time and time again: Australia Day is the day we celebrate our freedom. This initially seems self-evident, a sort of safe-harbour phrase for any brave souls trying to navigate the rough seas of Australia’s national identity discourse. However, it throws up a simple objection: if we are so free, why do we need to be given a day off work to celebrate it? Each year we unquestioningly accept a most Orwellian notion — a designated day off work to celebrate our freedom.
If Australians are as free as we like to imagine, shouldn’t we be able to celebrate it without a public holiday? Yet how many people would we see draped in flags at bus stops and train stations at 7am on Australia Day if they were on their way to work? If a public holiday is essential to our enjoyment of Australia Day can we really say we are celebrating freedom? Or are we doing the opposite, collectively rejoicing in an extra day without work? It cannot be both. The truly free don’t worship their days off.
According to the Australia Institute, Australians work the longest hours in the developed world and a recent study by Martin College suggests that only about 20 per cent of us are happy in our jobs. Whether or not you agree with the exact figures, it’s hard to deny that for a nation of ostensibly free individuals, many of us are spending the majority of our time doing things we don’t enjoy.
We like to boast about our freedom but to a genuine outsider this self-determination we seem so proud of must appear remarkably similar to oppression. For argument’s sake, imagine we were enslaved by a species of colonising aliens. What exactly would we be worried the aliens might do to us? Would they make us work long hours in jobs we hate? Spend most of our time away from our friends and family? Reduce us to mindless units of repetitive labour? You could excuse an observer for thinking someone had beaten them to the punch.
The "Australian culture" so many of us spend so much time trying to define is right here in front of us. It’s work rather than leisure which is at the heart of the Australian identity, toil rather than recreation. The laid-back Aussie larrikin has been replaced by a determined and diligent worker.
Our eager embrace of Australia Day and other precious public holidays is better seen as a reflection of how much we work rather than an affirmation of our liberty. The real Australia Day should be 27 January, the day after the public holiday festivities. This is the day when you wake up after three hours sleep, fully clothed, on the floor, with a blinding headache, and obediently drag yourself into the office. This is when you really know what it feels like to be Australian.
So this Australia Day, if you want to do something uniquely Australian on your day off, go to work. Instead of having a barbecue, have an office party. Eat some pavlova in the meeting room, drink a plastic cup of warm lemonade at your desk, watch out the window as another beautiful summer’s day passes you by — and reflect on how great it is to be free.
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