Wrapped in the flag and loving it
Sally Neighbour makes observations below that are similar to the ones I made briefly on Australia day. Note that I was able to explain what she cannot
NOT usually one for patriotic musings, at lunchtime on Wednesday I nonetheless found myself pondering the meaning of Australia Day and how this once second-rate public holiday became the source of such riotous celebration across the land.
At the time I was floating on a giant inflatable plastic thong, clinging to a rope tethered between buoys beyond the breakers at Bondi Beach.
For the record, it wasn't my idea. But there we were, bobbing on the ocean, me and 2067 other patsies, all set to make a world record for the number of people gullible enough to queue for 45 minutes and - get this - pay $30 to promote a foreign brand of rubber thong. The marketing genius who thought that up surely deserves an Order of Australia for services to advertising.
As the hoary strains of Men At Work's Down Under drifted predictably across the sea, our mooring provided a novel vantage point of Bondi Beach, now crowded with tens of thousands of bodies, outnumbered only by Australian flags - on bikinis, board shorts, towels, hats, umbrellas, beach shelters, painted faces and fake tattoos.
I wondered: how had it come to this? How had I been roped into such a commercial stunt? (In short, because my in-principle objections sounded lame in the face of my 11-year-old's protestation: "but it'll be fun". And damn it, it was.) More to the point, when and why had Australians embraced with such gusto an event that, not long ago, was regarded as just an excuse for a day off?
In the 1970s and 80s, having a holiday to commemorate the arrival of the first boats of white settlers was widely regarded - at least among my generation - as passe, an anachronistic nod to a history we weren't sure whether to be proud of or not.
As for the Australian flag, it was seen by many as an irrelevant relic of our colonial past, doomed for the scrapheap come the republic.
We would no sooner have draped ourselves in such a frumpy ensign than donned our grandma's bowling whites and headed for the local green.
For some, a vague discomfort with Australia's national symbols was only sharpened in recent years by the spectre of Pauline Hanson wrapped in the flag and its use as a symbol of ugly jingoism at Cronulla in 2005. "The cloak of racism," one friend calls it.
But such reservations have little traction among generations X and Y. Ambivalence has given way to unabashed pride in all things Australian, not least the flag.
They turn up to the Big Day Out with it tattooed on their skin. The same young Australians flock to Gallipoli each year to mark Anzac Day, and trek in their thousands along the Kokoda Track.
Just why this is so is a question that intrigues social researcher Rebecca Huntley, director of the survey-based market research firm, Ipsos. She has commissioned a study beginning this year called "being Australian", which will examine, among other things, the patriotism of gens X and Y.
Ipsos research thus far shows the things people most typically associate with being Australian are time-honoured values such as the "great Australian dream" of owning their own home, the idea of having a "laid-back" lifestyle, which Huntley says is "a core part of being Australian", and the knowledge that people will pull together in a time of need such as the recent floods. The surging affinity with nationalistic symbols is a more recent trend, most markedly in the past three years.
Huntley is reluctant to jump to conclusions about why young Australians are clearly more comfortable with the flag than the generation before them.
Maybe the young revellers simply realise how fortunate they are. It's hard to know when all you can get out of them is, "Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie, Oi Oi Oi!" It was left to a jubilant newcomer at a citizenship ceremony in Sydney to articulate why being Australian was something to be immensely grateful for. "The opportunity to find jobs here is much better and it's much safer. I do think that Australians who haven't travelled and seen how the rest of the world lives take the freedom here for granted."