The Australia Day Killjoy

Sara Ahmed has written a wonderful, scholarly account of what she terms ‘the feminist killjoy.’ The feminist killjoy is the person who speaks up in both informal and formal public situations—be it the dinner table with family, the pub with friends, or the workplace with colleagues— to point out or question sexist discussion. Inevitably this person is met with the feeling invoked by a pair of rolled-eyes, as those around her frustratingly ask/say things like: ‘why do you always have to take everything so seriously? Way to dampen the mood. Can’t we all just have a casual discussion without getting political…?’ And so on. Ahmed illustrates how emotions get entangled with the political: to interrogate sexist discussion is somehow to threaten good feelings, and as such, is not an easy position to occupy.

We’ve all been there. Someone says something offensive and we scroll through our response options in our head, quickly and carefully weighing them up against the probable fall-out. Is it worth it to speak up? It probably always is, but I’m certainly guilty for not always doing so.

Yesterday was Australia Day. I am currently living in Canada and was thus relieved of the intense flag-bearing nationalism one is often subjected to on this day. However, the uneasiness I experience on this day in Australia still haunted me here in Canada. My Canadian housemate asked if I would be doing anything celebratory to mark the occasion, i.e. to have a “happy Australia Day!” But as I explained to her, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to feel “happy” about Australia Day. I am an Australia Day killjoy.

Australia Day is celebrated on the 26th January, the day England’s First Fleet arrived to “settle” on the continent in 1788. In other words: the day the Imperialist movement invaded the continent to brutally take it over from its rightful Indigenous inhabitants. As it stands then, this day commemorates mass violence and the denial of the world’s oldest Aboriginal populations. The day is clearly not off to a happy start. Yet, as Ahmed notes, the past is often associated with bad feeling; the future with good feeling. There are those that will say: ‘yes, that was a bad start, but we have to let go of the past, we have to focus on the great things about our country in the present.’ Not doing so is somehow (and paradoxically, it seems to me), ruining the “happy” of the moment.

So let me move to the present. In the past year the Gillard Labor Government attempted to legislate a “people swap deal” with Malaysia for its asylum seekers. Our government wanted to send asylum seekers to Malaysia for “processing,” in exchange for “already-processed” asylum seekers granted refugee status. (Anyone would think we were talking about salami, not people). It was defeated, but legislation was passed to send asylum seekers to remote Pacific Islands. Here, desperate people are currently imprisoned in inhumane conditions, despite their rights under International Human Rights Law to seek asylum in any country. (It seems clear to me who the actual “people smugglers” are). Melissa Phillips from University of Melbourne raises some good questions on asylum seekers in the context of Australia Day.

In 2012 we also denied legislation to legalize gay marriage in Australia. Marriage aside, standard civil rights of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual community are constantly denied in the face of brash homophobia.

I love my country for a number of reasons. But, so long as it continues to shove people into the margins and outside the realm of humanness, I cannot  feel “happy” with it on the 26th January. Australia, you can continue to push people out of sight but I refuse to let them be pushed out of my mind, especially on a day that is supposed to celebrate all Australians, along with the country’s overall virtue. I will celebrate your decency when you act decently. (HINT: changing the date of the national holiday would be a good place for you to start). ‘Til then, the beer I raise is in solidarity with all those fighting to be rightfully included in Australia Fair’s ‘boundless plains to share.’

Oh, Danni. Way to dampen the mood.


4 comments on “The Australia Day Killjoy

  1. MRM says:

    I too have been feeling uneasy about Australia day lately.. I haven’t yet figured out how to assemble how I feel into a cohesive set of words.

    The thing is, the “INVASION DAY! DON’T YOU KNOW YOUR CELEBRATING THE BRUTAL INVASION OF AN ANCIENT CULTURE” group of people annoy me just as much as the flag waving “AUSTRALIA! FUCK YEAH!” crowd. Neither side do anything for a serious discussion. Like you, there are some things I love about Australia, but we’ve got some serious problems to address. Can you celebrate Australia given its faults at all? I think we can. I like the life I have here, my friends and family, and some things intrinsic to Australia itself – I’m thinking certain small coastal downs in regional South Australia. It’s the jingoistic US style patriotism that pisses me off. As if to question some things that we do is inherently un-Australian. My point is that these are complicated issues, and glib one liners don’t help anyone on either side of the fence.

    Surely nobody in Australia is actually celebrating an invasion when we collectively fire up our BBQs and fill up our eskies on January 26. I’m certainly not. Perhaps though, celebrating on January 26 is sending off the wrong message to the people who care most.

    I wonder sometimes, about the merits of changing the date of our national holiday. Would January 27th be too close for comfort? I’m being a bit facetious, but the limitation of course is that there are only 365 days to choose from. There will inevitably be people offended by whichever date you choose. However, as a middle class, white male the choice really isn’t up to me. I’m not affected either way. If it really is offensive to the first Australians, we should recognise that. There’s no need to be jerks.

    My only request, if we can indeed even have a celebration given the points you raise, is that we keep it during Summer.

    • dannijean17 says:

      Thanks for writing, MRM. It really is an uneasy issue, and I agree that there is a great lack of (thoughtful) discussion about it. The issue about whether or not we can rightfully celebrate positive things when we know they are attached to some negative things is tricky, and I’ve actually been trying to write something about this very thing over the past few weeks. It was prompted by my celebratory response to Obama being re-elected for US President and the subsequent conflict I felt because I knew he was pursuing violent attacks after his win. I’m still trying to assemble my thoughts on this tricky ground too. It’s true to say that many of us are surely celebrating the great things about our country on this day, but because this is a National Holiday based on the date of invasion, and is about “what it means to be Australian,” then I think it’s really important that we think critically about this e.g. the history of Australia’s so-called ideals, who these ideals continue to include and exclude, etc. As for the date change, I think it would be a positive gesture that would more fruitfully symbolize Australia’s supposed acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians. I don’t know when either, though I know some proponents of the date-change have suggested the date that Aboriginal Australians received the right to vote, i.e. the date they were finally acknowledged as people.

      All in all, I agree: there’s no need to be jerks! And as for certain coastal towns in regional South Australia – HOW I MISS THEE! 🙂 Definitely worth cracking a beer & having a cheers to that beautiful landscape any day of the year.

  2. dannijean17 says:

    No sooner did I post this comment & someone posted a link to this site on my FB feed. Relevant in light of our discussion above I think:

  3. […] especially in light of my feeling towards troublesome celebrations, like Australia Day, which I wrote about earlier this year. I’m still mulling this over, but the following is how I’ve navigated the […]

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