Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Flag Blag


Natural Disaster at Seat of Pants


Australia Day. I ambled onto my rear deck this morning and what did I see? Arrrgggghhhh. The patriots below have inappropriately unfurled all over my view. Don’t that thing stand out? It’s not only my egocentricity that’s affronted. I was already feeling a certain yeeeuuucccchhh about the whole Australia Day blaahhhttt. Sorry about the onomatopoeia obsession but my homeland tends to bring out the beeeuuulcccchhhh in me I’m afraid. You can blame Barry McKenzie for that one. Forgive me while I

uuuurrrrgggarraaammmaaakkk.

Okay, I feel a little better now that I’ve had an Alka-Seltzer and a stiff gin. Here’s where I stand on overt displays of nationalism. A homemade replica of your country’s flag scrappily tacked up in your front window during a major sporting contest, if and crucially only if, your country incredulously ends up in the final when it wasn’t expected even to qualify, is acceptable. Iceland, Cameroon and Jamaica – your flags are welcome on any occasion. France and Holland – only if cheese is involved. I know I should be staying calm but these maniacs have put up a flagpole. Where have I landed? Nazstralia? Who puts up a fucking flagpole unless they plan to open a military academy?

Australia Day, celebrated on 26th January every year, commemorates the day in 1788 that Captain Arthur Phillip fetched up on a great southern continent which had been successfully owned and operated by a continuous collective of indigenous peoples for around 40,000 years, and claimed it on behalf of a dysfunctional monarchy that had been around for a few hundred. Mad King George III was tottering on and off the throne at the time and quite frankly, in addition to his many personality defects, had a bit of a plunder problem. Some Aboriginal people naturally regard this day as a token of mourning and refer to it as Invasion Day. I wonder how the Aboriginal family next door feel about our neighbours over the back flying the flag of their tormentors on this of all days. Aboriginal Australia has a flag too, one that signifies the history and geography of this country. Why not display that flag if they must put one up?

I lived in Britain when the Union flag was appropriated by the National Front to taunt black residents. It was a horrible time but eventually those racists were soundly despatched by ordinary, decent folk who just wouldn’t have it. These days in Britain the jack has no function in public display apart from letting everyone know that there are royals about and they should scarper unless they want to end up on the front page of Majesty Magazine. Instead it has assumed an appropriate afterlife as a popular pattern for undergarments, which naturally Pants approves wholeheartedly. The Australian flag incorporates the jack which is the source of most of my discomfort. If its country of origin has already conceded its oppressive power and tempered its invocation, surely ordinary, decent Australians must realise that they might be offending people by running it up a flagpole in their backyard on a contentious day.

Today, Aboriginal activist Mick Dodson was named Australian of the Year. It’s a supposedly prestigious honour bestowed upon a person of great importance and influence, at least that’s what the Prime Minister inferred when he handed it over. Then Mick Dodson used his position of importance and influence to make the modest suggestion that Australia might consider celebrating its national harmony on a different day from the one that Aboriginal people feel is the most inappropriate out of the 365 on offer. And all he asked for was a conversation about it. The Prime Minister snapped back,

Let me say a simple, respectful, but straightforward no.

It was the back-flip that shattered a carefully orchestrated illusion. Here was the same Prime Minister who less than a year ago made that historic and cathartic Sorry speech, huffing in a tone that suggested what he really thinks is, ‘oh for crying out loud, haven’t we humoured you people enough already?

Amongst today’s events was a march through the streets of Brisbane to protest the continuing scandal of the stolen wages. For decades Aboriginal children were herded into dormitories where they were taught domestic skills and 'manners' and then farmed out to white employers, often on remote cattle stations where they were treated with contempt and very often actual cruelty. They had no choice about these placements and, if they decided to ‘resign’ i.e. exercise their only chance to reclaim their lives by running off in the middle of the night, they were hunted down, beaten and returned or sent somewhere even more awful.

In return for hard work and long hours they received ‘pocket money’, a tiny portion of their wages. The rest was supposedly held 'in trust' by the state and most of it was never paid out. Now it transpires that this money has disappeared. In any other situation this would be fraud but it’s just those pesky Aboriginal people rehashing unfortunate incidents from the past to be annoying. In an act of extraordinary gall, the authorities have offered a one-off payment of $4,000 as compensation. That’s the monthly wage of a low ranking public servant and to Aboriginal people whose savings were fleeced over twenty or thirty years, must be a worse insult than being offered nothing at all. It’s an admission of culpability but at the same time a glaring statement of just how little Aboriginal people are valued. For some families, those stolen wages meant the difference between owning their own home and paying a lifetime of rent to someone else. In real terms the money owed to them is more like half a million.

Even today in some parts of Australia Aboriginal people have their incomes quarantined, regardless of their circumstances or their capacity to manage their own finances. How can this kind of discrimination be tolerated? So yes, Mick Dodson, you have my vote. Let’s change the date. I honestly think it’s the very least we should do if we are sincere about equal rights for Indigenous Australians. I suggest April 1 and then I can have a jolly good old giggle when my neighbours over the back put up their flag.