Australia Day 2018
Comment: Let's talk about burning the flag
The image of a protester burning a flag on Australia Day 2017 raised a lot of questions about the significance of the day and how Australians really feel about the idea of changing the date.
It also raised questions about what can be achieved by burning the flag.
What did the protester want to achieve by burning an Australian flag? Sure he was angry. Sure he was making a point about the historical treatment of Indigenous people. Sure he wanted a new date for Australia Day.
Did he want to draw attention to the need for better health and education outcomes for Indigenous people in the future? Did he advance those issues or potentially set them back?
To find answers, in the weeks after Australia Day Review Partners asked 1043 Australians what they thought (with the support of Survey Sampling International).
In a previous analysis in B&T magazine, I looked at what Australia Day advertising told us about ourselves.
Our latest survey results gave us a deeper insight into the mood of the nation following the wave of protests that swept our capital cities.
The survey revealed that yes, most Australians (84%) had heard about the campaign to change the date. Presumably a lot of them had seen the flag burning images.
Despite this, only 16% of people thought we should change the date of Australia Day, 59% said no and 24% said they didn’t really care what date Australia Day is held.
This is important because it suggests the publicity around changing the date had little effect on changing the attitudes of the broader population.
A lot of the arguments for changing the date seemed to focus on making white Australians feel guilty for what other white Australians did in the past – a point that seems unlikely to galvanise people into action.
On the issue of guilt and responsibility, our survey found that the overwhelming majority agreed ‘White people living in Australia today came from many different countries and should not have to feel guilty about how the British inhabited Australia’ (85%).
The same proportion agreed ‘We shouldn't forget history, but we should be focusing on what is good about Australia, not the mistakes made by people in the past’ (87%).
Most people know that guilt is a bad method of persuasion – whether you are selling products or dealing with a relationship.
So is trashing the competitor brand by setting fire to it – particularly when it alienates the people whose minds you are trying to change.
During the Vietnam war, protesters around the world burnt American flags to send a message to President Johnson to end the war to benefit the Vietnamese people. It worked.
Who were the protests in Australia (and the flag burning) intended to benefit?
What concerns me is that the broader issues of the relationship between Indigenous people and the rest of the population got lost in the anger over the date of Australia Day – as if a new date was an end in itself.
The anger directed at Australia Day also overlooks the fact that many Indigenous people use Australia Day to celebrate Indigenous culture.
In fact on January 26th every year since 2001, Sydney has hosted ‘the largest one day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in Australia’ - the Yabun Festival since 2001. www.yabun.org.au
Like the ice bucket challenge, I fear that #changethedate took hold on social (and mainstream) media without its supporters really understanding the issues or having a purpose – apart from venting their anger at previous (dead) generations.
I also fear another reason it became viral is because we are heading into a vacuum of national identity.
We used to stand for acceptance of diversity, but the failure of moderate government and the rise of the far right in politics has seen that fade as a national trait.
There is also the risk that, when Australia Day doesn’t really stand for a clear national identity, then people – particularly younger generations - will naturally wonder why we bother with it – beyond a holiday and a BBQ.
In one way the protests were an attempt to vest some significance in the day by suggesting it represents what is wrong with Australia.
The fact that Australians of all colours are now marching in the street to support an Indigenous cause should be a positive signal for recognition and reconciliation.
However, the answer to better outcomes for Indigenous people does not lie in anger or guilt.
It lies in finding the positive things that we can share with each other and represent a new level of mutual respect – so we can proudly share our Australian national identity together – which I still think was the central message in the MLA lamb ad.
It is also the message that drew the strongest support in our survey, with 92% of people agreeing that ‘On Australia Day we should remember how far we have come as a diverse nation which now accepts people regardless of their origins’ (92%).
Changing the date might be symbolic step towards this, but not the way it is currently being argued.
Paul Costantoura, Review Partners