Australia: Advancing or Waltzing?

It’s hot in Australia at the moment, 41 degrees yesterday in the temperate South East where most of us live. It’ll be Australia Day soon - January 26, the middle of summer, a public holiday typically celebrated at barbecues or the beach. Though in recent years many Aussies spend it in air-conditioned shopping malls, eating and browsing for imported consumer goods.

We’ll see the annual slew of comment about patriotism and the posturing of a few politicians as they ignore any discussion of what the day really is or why it’s been proclaimed. We might get some superficial history lessons, strained mention of Invasion Day or Survival Day but probably no mention of the 1938 Day of Mourning. That was an Australia Day conference in Sydney, a protest by Aboriginal Australians on the sesquicentenary of British colonisation of Australia.

To Aboriginal Australians this day naturally means Invasion, Mourning and Survival. But those concepts are not immediately real to 97% of the population.

How much do Australians know about their National Day or the foundation of the nation itself? At school in the 50s and 60s we learnt “British History” which included the colonisation of Australia, but most adults recall very little detail. So let’s revisit some sources, the main ones being noted at the foot of this essay.

The word “Nation” has various meanings which change over time. The concept is related to the political formation of the state and the exercise of power, as well as to ethnic community, language and history. It bears a tenuous nexus with both “country” and “state” although the word “country” is usually a marker of place, a way of defining geographic space.

While ethnic communities often hold to an origin myth and elements of common culture to give them a sense of group solidarity, nations are formed more by the exercise of power (both political and economic). “Nation” is a rather political concept inextricably linked to the coherence of the state. And states rely for their existence on who wields power.

Triumph, victory, grandeur and continuity are valued by states ancient and modern. This is demonstrated by the way many capital cities proudly showcase themselves with an architectural symbol of national significance - L’Arc de Triomphe, Marble Arch (London has at least three ceremonial arches), the Narva in Saint Petersburg and India Gate in Delhi. Berlin has the Brandenburg gate, not arched but serving the same triumphant purpose: victory in war, expansion of empire or founding new colonies, accession of a new ruler, and so on.

Labor Day

Labor Day, Melbourne circa 1900. Our big parades have usually been union based.

The same theme is continued in the design of major avenues (Champs Elysees, Unter den Linden, Passeig de Gracia) or iconic monuments (Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower), or sometimes in the general arrangement of the city’s architecture (Empire State Building, the Sublime Porte in Istanbul, the centre of Paris or London).

Sydney has the Harbour Bridge and maybe the Opera House: both wonderful in design and emotive in significance, but neither symbolise war or historical grandeur. Geert Mak in his book on Amsterdam notes that many important cities are distinguished by their monumentality, “by a style of building that transforms the citizen into a subject.” The architecture of glory and prestige.

But Australia, like Amsterdam, has little of this monumental ideology, neither in its buildings nor it’s barebones history nor its favourite cultural myths. Mockingly called the Lucky Country and self-titled The Land of The Long Weekend, Australians like to deprecate themselves and assume a low key egalitarianism: “She’ll be right mate” and “Fair go” have been almost sacred turns of phrase.

Unpacking such labels leads to the historical inner ethos and can reveal what public markers such as Australia Day actually mean to most of the people.


Australia Day basically legitimises the British Imperial occupation and conquest of this continent by celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, the subsequent taking possession on 7 February 1788 of the Colony of New South Wales, and the vesting of all land in the reigning monarch George III by Captain Arthur Phillip, Commander of the Fleet.

Phillip commanded nearly a thousand convicts and Royal Marines on those first eleven ships. By 1868 a further 134,261 male and 24,568 women convicts would be transported on 806 merchant ships. This Colony of New South Wales was established as a prison to clear the overcrowded English criminal system, for those who could not be transported to America after the rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies. Convicts outnumbered the soldiers and “free settlers” for the first thirty years.

The “First Fleet” straggled into Botany Bay between 18th and 20th January 1788. This was the site of Cook’s landing eighteen years earlier. But the area was now found unsuitable for settlement (no fresh water) and the Bay was open to ocean swells, so they moved a short distance north to a magnificent enclosed harbour on 26 January 1788.

The Union Jack was raised there at Sydney Cove, today’s Circular Quay in the heart of Sydney. The first actual commemoration of this imperial landing was held in 1791, and by 1804, 26 January was referred to as First Landing Day or Foundation Day, but not “officially” marked. In 1808 it became an official date, followed the next day by the Rum Rebellion - a military coup against the Imperial Governor!

From 1818, January 26 was was officially celebrated as NSW’s Foundation Day. In 1838 the 50 year milestone was marked with a public holiday in Sydney. But not until 1935 did all Australian states and territories adopt the term "Australia Day" to mark the date, and not until 1994 was the date consistently marked nationally by a public holiday.

A pertinent digression is that originally the colony was called New South Wales within the “place” termed New Holland. In 1801 the Royal Navy’s Matthew Flinders (1774–1814) circumnavigated the entire land, confirming it as a continent, and in his posthumously published “A Voyage to Terra Australis” urged that continent be called “Australia." The Colonial Office did not make the change until 1824. It’s a tantalising thought experiment to speculate upon the possible effects of a different nomenclature such as “New Netherlands Day” or “Dutch Rules” football.


A country’s national day, and the way it is celebrated, signifies a lot about that place and those people. Is it a grand military march with tanks and flypasts? Is it a colourful pageant? A dignified reflection on a historical journey? Or a barbecue at the beach?

In the Netherlands (where we lived for 18 months) they celebrate Remembrance Day on May 4, not a public holiday, and Liberation Day on May 5 - a public occasion every five years. The square in Amsterdam fills with a respectful crowd who watch in almost complete silence as the monarch leaves the Royal Palace and walks alone across the Dam to lay a wreath at the National Monument. There’s a military band but the music is soft and low. Being present at Queen Beatrix’s final presentation on a mild spring afternoon told us more about Dutch society and sense of self than half a dozen tourist guides, and this is itself a function of a National Day - to express the national zeitgeist and teach others about national dreams.

Only two countries have no national day - the UK and Denmark, both with rich historical reasons for celebrating nationhood. Denmark does celebrate the adoption of their modern constitution, and England - from which Australians derive most of our civic institutions - has St George Day. The UK of course is not legally synonymous with England. But the rest of the world celebrates something of significance for their nation and their people, or at least the dominant group of people. France has Bastille Day and the US Independence Day, Spain actually celebrates Columbus’ landing in the Americas! Portugal notes the death of their famous poet Luis de Camoess in 1580. Some countries have two national days.

But for Australia there is nothing so solemn: no Declaration of Independence from a tyrannical foreign king, no storming of the Bastille, no proclamation of a People’s Republic.

Our day has a mixed history, of no immense significance. It wasn’t actually the arrival date of the first convict ships, that would have been a week earlier. Unlike other countries’ national days it does not mark a liberation or revolution or other symbol of the birth of a nation. Rather it notes the establishment of a small penal colony. In terms of the establishment of Australia as a nation state, Federation of the six colonies (1st January 1901) would probably be more appropriate. As a marker of British imperial power, Cook’s landing (24 May 1770) might suffice, but that raises the argument that Cook did not “discover” the Great South Land because he navigated with maps from other European powers, who’s navigators had already visited and mapped much of the continent. The Dutch had been here in 1606 (Jandzoon) and 1616 (Dirk Den Hartog) and the French, Spanish and Portuguese all lay claim to sightings and visits.

The northern and west coasts were well known and mapped, and in fact two hundred or so Dutch mariners had been shipwrecked and marooned in what we now call Western Australia.

What Cook did was map the East Coast for his Imperial Navy, and his landing at Botany Bay was opposed by a group of local people. He drove them off with musket fire, after failing to negotiate a landing by tossing beads ashore.

Because of course, this land was not empty, but occupied by up to a million indigenous people. Many, or most of the descendants of those original Australians now see Australia Day as Invasion Day, and themselves as survivors of genocide. But for 97% of the population concepts such as Invasion, Mourning and Survival have little immediate content or context.

There are some official civic aspects to Australia Day, but rarely do they go beyond the granting of Australian citizenship, with the attendant bonus of British subjectship, and speeches by the Governor-General of the Commonwealth and the Prime Minister.

Only the former is provided for in the Constitution, which was itself an Act of the British Parliament in 1900. The PM is not even mentioned in that foundational document. This highlights a key but almost hidden facet of Australia: an institutional emphasis on militarism. Each State has a Governor, a relic of Colonial times when he governed in the name of the English monarch.

You can read a much longer explanation of Constitutional matters in George Venturini’s legalistic article, including sections of the Australian Constitution vesting power in the Monarch, and giving Parliament the power to make special laws for “the people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary.”


Australia’s relationship with the Crown is legally tortuous and to some extent vague and ill-defined. Venturini and many historians have traced the developments in some detail, but the story of the flag demonstrates in a different way how January 26 marks the British colonisation and not a step towards independence and nationhood.

It is significant that at Federation Australia did not have a national flag of its own but used the Union Jack. In fact that symbol of the British Empire continued to hold legal precedence over the actual Australian flag until the Flags Act of 1953.

We should note also that the Union Jack raised at Sydney Cove in 1788 was itself amended by the inclusion of the Irish cross in 1801. Britain at the time was morphing it’s long domination and colonisation of Ireland into political union.

While two official Australian flags were commissioned in 1901, and raised in Melbourne on 3 September, the one we know and use today was not approved by the King until August 1902. King Edward VII proclaimed his approval in February 1903 and in June 1904 Federal Parliament resolved to fly the flag in all public places where flags were used. In June 1908 the Australian Army was directed to fly “the Australian Ensign” in place of the Union Jack. In 1911 the Navy was directed to fly both the Australian flag and the Royal Navy ensign.

But at the opening of Parliament House in Canberra, in May 1927 the red ensign was flown alongside the Union Jack. This was in theory the Australian maritime flag, but was frequently used on land and in civil contexts until the Flags Act of the early fifties. (The Australian Parliament met in Melbourne from Federation until Canberra was designed and built).

It was only on 14 April, 1954, that the Commonwealth Government Flags Act confirmed the status, by legislation and title, of the Australian National Flag. After two World Wars and half a century since Federation.

You might say it’s been a long and winding road to modern nationhood, though a sort of backroad devoid of impetus and drama. A track winding back to that old fashioned shack as the Aussie folksong says.

Songs and music, indeed, are another way that nations define and describe themselves.


The second half of the 19th century saw an unfolding struggle in the colony between Empire Loyalists and Australian Natives - the latter being locally born whitefellas, not indigenous people. As part of the Empire all non-indigenous Australians were by definition British subjects, right up till 1949 in fact when the concept of Australian citizenship was legally created. It came into force on Australia Day, 1949.

This deep seated but largely peaceful tussle can be understood in different ways - squatter versus selector, republican vs royalist, employers against unionists, diggers against police, Irish against nearly everyone, Catholic and Protestant, native born as opposed to immigrants and so on. A great example is given in Tom Keneally’s “Australians” where he describes Henry Parkes as a young republican opposing the re-introduction of convict transportation in 1848. Losing the particular battle, winning the long game and going on to become the “Father of Federation.”

There’s a book by Mimmo Cozzolino called “Symbols of Australia” that’s full of trademarks and advertising labels from this period of Australian history. Cockatoos and kangaroos, kookaburras with fags in their mouths, proud merino rams and rising suns. It presents a time of adolescent optimism, new colonial boys with a touch of the larrikin and no particular obeisance to Empire.

A similar thread can be seen in the poetry and short stories of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, and the competing claims to authenticity of Waltzing Matilda and Advance Australia Fair. The latter was composed by Glasgow-born Peter Dodds McCormick and first performed in 1878 at the St Andrew's Day concert of the Highland Society, in Sydney. It was later sung by a choir of 10,000 at the inauguration of the Commonwealth (1 January 1901). McCormick emigrated to Australia in 1855 at age 20, and worked in schools and with choirs. In 1907, the Australian Government awarded him £100 for his composition. He died in 1916 and the Sydney Morning Herald wrote prophetically:

Mr. McCormick established a reputation with the patriotic song, "Advance Australia Fair", which [...] has come to be recognised as something in the nature of an Australian National Anthem.

Nearly a century after it was written, in 1974, the Whitlam Government announced it was indeed the National Anthem, although God Save The Queen would continue to be played or sung when royalty was present. God Save The Queen (previously - the King) had of course been the de-facto anthem up till then.

Subsequent governments formalised this and on 19 April, 1984 (just in time for the Los Angeles Olympics) Advance Australia Fairfinally became Australia's national anthem once and for all. There had been an opinion poll in 1974 and a more official plebiscite in 1977 and on both occasions this anthem had scored ahead of Waltzing Matilda and God Save the Queen.

Advance Australia Fair is nicely patriotic without being nationalistic. It rejoices in our country’s youth and freedom, voicing that “our land abounds in nature’s gifts, of beauty rich and rare.” It sketches an impressionistic and sunny picture, and quietly asserts a national identity, but it doesn’t glorify the “fatherland” or elevate some “origin myth” and it doesn’t tell a story.

Waltzing Matilda, on the other hand both tells a story and contains a back story. A White Australian story and one that earlier generations related to in a personal and emotive way. There are more sound recordings of it than any other Australian song. The National Film and Sound Archive has listed 600 unique recordings and almost 50 other songs based on Waltzing Matilda, from Australia and all over the world. Even Tom Waits has used part of it in Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen. The Australian War Memorial has film of Diggers singing it in WW II, and so on.

Manning Clark dismissed nearly all the writing of Australian history that had gone before him as “the product of the dead hand of British imperialism” and while his own work is overdue for re-examination, and imperialism does blanket national life with a deadening conformism, there are nevertheless many examples of insight and understanding in Australian history - such as Richard Magoffin’s work on the origins of Waltzing Matilda.

Magoffin, who died at 69 in 2006, was descended from a rebel at the Eureka Stockade, the only example of armed insurrection in White Australian history. His thesis is that the antihero of Banjo Paterson's famous song - the sheep-stealing swagman who jumps into a billabong and dies - was a unionist who shot himself to avoid capture during the Queensland shearers strikes of the 1890s. He wrote extensively on the song’s genealogy.

Paterson composed the words in 1894 to accompany the tune “Craigielee” which he heard played in outback Queensland by Christina MacPherson. A solicitor, he was an acknowledged writer and poet and formerly a republican, who in 1891 changed tack and decided to join the establishment. Through the contacts of his fiancee (whom he never married) he became a member of the exclusive Australian Club, shortly before travelling outback to visit squatter friends. Magoffin’s theory is that Paterson was personally complex and socially conflicted, as were the MacPhersons and that Waltzing Matilda is a gently subversive reflection of class struggle. A whimsical ballad that doesn't overtly take sides. A laconic tale to prevent conflict by song, instead of argument which might spiral into civil strife.

“Matilda” came close to being the official National Anthem. A referendum at another time could have given another result. But its story maybe runs parallel to Les Temps des Cerises, sung in the years following the massacres of the Paris Commune when survivors mourned their precious losses privately while unable to publicly recover from the trauma. White Australia has not had the massacres or trauma but in the same way that many Australians like to shrug off our achievements and not “big note” ourselves, so the popular choice of anthem avoids possibility of hubris or contention.


So all three common markers of nationhood - Flag, Anthem and National Day - are clearly devoid of monumental symbolism, overt division, sense of superiority or pretensions of grandeur.

In some ways this mirrors the favourite identity that white Australians, until now, have chosen for themselves. It’s formulated in different ways, but typically includes a laconic, egalitarian figure who stands up for the underdog and reckons everyone should get a fair go. A good sportsman or woman who likes a beer and a laugh. A bronzed Aussie who either rides through the outback or patrols a surf beach. Probably male. These are stereotypes of course, as captured by many semi-archetypal figures from Chips Rafferty to Steve Irwin, or in the advertising jingle “football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars.”

The Bureau of Statistics reveals that the current “average” Australian is a 37 year old woman who works part time as a sales assistant! She finished school and went on to further training, got married or partnered up and has two kids. She is a non-practising Christian. At 71.1 kg and 161.8 cm tall, she is officially overweight.

A recent newspaper survey in Perth revealed that West Australians value time over money, family over possessions, and are optimistic about the future. And that’s the picture that most Australians like to paint of themselves, their culture and country.

This picture, these stereotypes and favoured self images, also ignore the real diversity of Australia, and more pertinently don’t help us understand our identity. It is really the exploration of identity that leads to national definition and we can only then be properly represented by flags and anthems. Australia is still in that exploration stage.


From time to time some Australians consider the possibility of moving the National Day to a different date, mainly because it celebrates the foundation of just New South Wales, and for some is seen as the date of British invasion. Federation (January 1) is considered, or Anzac Day (April 25). There are obstacles to both of these, one being the date six colonies united into one, the other being the defeat of a British imperial landing on a foreign nation’s soil.

But the deeper issue is mainly to do with the Constitution and the nature of our relationship with other more powerful states in the wider world. At the core is an unresolved issue of Australian identity. As George Venturini has written -

A diffused sense of ‘unhistory' spills over from the attitude to Indigenous People to the search for an Australian identity. This is not an overwhelming concern of general interest: the average Australian is satisfied with common phrases such as the fair go, which is supposed to preside over social policy and its development and mateship , that almost indefinable relationship amongst ‘real' Australians - which anyway is exclusivist in nature because to be shared only among men.


Despite the beautifully presented study kits distributed from time to time by Canberra to the nation’s schools, and despite the “history wars” and “culture wars” of the last generation, most of us have never read either the Constitution itself nor a reasonable summary of it, at school or since.

The Australian Constitution does not protect the basic rights of the Australian people, nor does it even list our rights, but only a few scattered provisions such as trial by jury, a range of religious freedoms and freedom of interstate trade. As George Williams has written:

. . . the few rights that are listed in the Constitution are scattered about the text and are ad hoc rather than comprehensive. The result is that many basic rights receive no constitutional protection. . . . For example, the text of the Australian Constitution does not include anything amounting to a freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex or race, and, while the it has been interpreted to protect freedom of political communication it lacks a more general right of free speech. The Constitution does not even contain an express guarantee of the right to vote.

In essence it is little no more than a trade agreement, written in pedestrian terms, mainly concerned with the removal of tariffs between the various colonies that would become States. The Australian Constitution is itself embodied in clause 9 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, which was passed by the British Parliament in 1900. At that time only Britain could enable laws for the whole of Australia.

Five of the existing colonies agreed “to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” That is, the separate colonies were legally united by the Imperial power into one self-governing colony, not an independent state. The sixth colony, Western Australia was not a party to the initial agreement but agreed to join the Federation before 1 January 1901.

Australia was to be no more than a super colony, largely for ease of trade and administration.

Further, an obsession with maintaining “the purity of the British race” pervaded 19th Century Constitutional debates. The Constitution was drafted against a backdrop of racism that led to the White Australia Policy and referred to Aborigines only in negative terms. Section 127 even made it unlawful to include 'Aboriginal natives' when counting the number of 'people' of the Commonwealth.

This was the section removed by the 1967 referendum, but other problems were left untouched. The first is Section 25 which acknowledges the States can disqualify people from voting due to their race. This reflects the fact that at Federation in 1901, and for decades afterwards, states denied the vote to Aborigines. The Section is repugnant and should be deleted.

The second problem is the races power in Section 51(26) which says Federal Parliament can make 'special laws' for people of any race. The idea in the White Australia of 1901 was that laws were needed to discriminate against certain races, such as by limiting their occupation or where they could live so as to restrict their contact with whites. As stated in 1898 by Edmund Barton, soon to be the first Prime Minister, the power was necessary to 'regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races who are in the Commonwealth'.

This Section is still in operation - and is at odds with widespread suggestions that Australia should “acknowledge and honour the Aboriginal people as the first people and nations" and should “recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution” as recommended by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians set up in 2010 with multi-party support.

There used to be posters around saying White Australia has a Black History and in terms of national identity white Australia must come to terms with invasion, colonisation, dispossession and discrimination. And with the continuing effects of those things today. Our identity is no longer that of a British colony and a White Man’s Utopia. But we haven’t yet discussed with each other what it has now become.

In 1986 the Commonwealth passed the Australia Act which made Australian law independent of British parliaments and courts. This was the final Act of the seven Australian parliaments needed for a constitutional change to the whole Federation. The British Parliament also legislated to untie the ‘apron strings’ and so end the inclusion into Australian law of British Acts of Parliament as well as abolish all appeals from Australian courts to the Privy Council in London. The Queen’s consent, of course, was necessary for the Proclamation to take effect, so that nearly 200 years after the First Fleet Australia finally had a genuinely national system of law.

During the period of the 1988 Bicentenary there was considerable interest in nostalgic Australiana. People listened to bush bands and flocked to places like Sovereign Hill and Old Sydney Town. Many checked the shipping registers to see if they were descended from convicts. But the world has moved on and many things have changed - demographics, ethnicity, economic distribution, urban patterns. Are we the same society today? Are we still relaxed and cheeky admirers of Dawn Fraser messing about in the Emperor’s moat? Do we still secretly yearn for the Australia of the 1956 Olympics when the world seemed a safer and happier place?

Since Federation, the Australian population has changed dramatically, and now Australia has become one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. We are generally older, we have less UK and European migrants and more Asian newcomers, who tend to be younger. Temporary migrants outnumber permanents. More than a quarter of us are born overseas.

So we are continually becoming a new country and a new nation. Old assumptions no longer necessarily apply. We have been on a long journey from that old bush hut on the Gundagai track.

Any revaluation and definition of Australian identity cannot be done without a total revision of the Constitution, and to embark on that course puts any consideration of the Flag, Anthem and Australia Day into a perspective which may be too difficult and sensitive for our political and social systems to deal with.

Somewhere beneath the popular confusion and media diversions lies the question of state power.

Section 61 of the Constitution provides that “The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative ...” Section 62 provides that “There shall be a Federal Executive Council to advise the Governor-General in the government of the Commonwealth, and the members of the Council shall be chosen and summoned by the Governor-General and sworn as Executive Councillors, and shall hold office during his pleasure.”

No mention is made of a Prime Minister in Chapter 2 of the Constitution which deals with Executive Government. The Governor-General has the power to appoint ministers of state, and to command “the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth as the [English monarch]'s representative.”

The Governor-General is the chief representative of power and constitutionally Australia is still subservient to the British Crown. Our Head of State is actually a foreign monarch, but this question of who holds power, who should and why it matters is rarely discussed in Australia and never in the mainstream media. George Venturini, again, has noted:

The time has long passed for Australians to develop a historically correct and truthful awareness of their past, identity and character, abandoning forever the shallow jingoistic parody one sees on such events as Australia Day. That may only come by embracing and reconciling with the Indigenous People and their culture in a true and meaningful way, but above all in a way that they understand and appreciate. With that goes a serious commitment to reparation for past tragedies.

This essay was first published in Ranterulze, January 2015, then in AIMN January 2015. Copyright © 2015 | Photo at top of Labor Day 8-Hour March, circa 1900 in Melbourne

Some relevant sources

  • Mimmo Cozzolino, Symbols of Australia, Cozbook & Penguin, 1980
  • Rupert Gerritsen, Their Ghosts My Be Heard, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1994
  • Thomas Keneally, Australians: Origins to Eureka, Allen & Unwin, 2009
  • Richard Magoffin, Waltzing Matilda : The Story Behind The Legend, ABC Books, 1987
  • Geert Mak, Amsterdam, Vintage 2001
  • George Williams, The Federal Parliament and the Protection of Human Rights, Research Paper #20, 1998 - 99, Parliament of Australia
  • George Williams:
  • George Venturini
  • 19, 2013