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Australia Day, Flag, and the Big Day Out

I was out surfing in some lazy summer swell at Cronulla yesterday. While waiting for a wave I overheard some grommets - young surfers - talking about Australia Day. At first the discussion was friendly, but then it got ugly. One of the youths began yelling at the other. They were arguing over whether or not they should wear a t-shirt painted with the Aussie flag on January 26.

One of the youths claimed his mate was being unAustralian and politically correct, like the organizers of the Big Day Out. The organizers have asked festival-goers to leave their flags at home. They are concerned by what happened at last year’s event, which came only weeks after the Cronulla riots.

One of the surfers said he had gone to the BDO in 2006, and encountered nationalistic overtones. People he saw were wearing shirts and temporary tattoos saying ‘Aussie Pride’. One poor bloke was viciously assaulted because he refused to kiss a flag carried by a pack of drunk thugs. The other surfer laughed.

Waves went by unridden as the argument continued into a discussion of what the Australian flag represents. The pro flag-waver said that the flag symbolised mateship and a fair go for all. He added that when he took part in the riot last year all he’d been trying to get across was the issue of ‘respect’ for the ‘Australian way of life’. He saw the attacks on anyone who appeared to be of Middle-Eastern descent as an endorsement of John Howard’s view that we needed to protect Australia from the ‘threats’ of multiculturalism, immigration and the global war on terror.

The other bloke disagreed angrily, and said he hated such localism. In surfing culture localism is the process of dominating your territory. Localism is about imposing your own cultural laws on others. It’s not just about making sure you and your mates get the best waves - its about protecting ‘your’ beach and ‘your’ women from ‘outsiders’. To avoid violent confrontations local surfers claim that if you give respect you will get it. But any surfer knows that’s not really true. The respect is one way because the local way is considered the authentic or authoritative way to do things. Other ways are not really respected, they’re only tolerated.

Political philosopher Preston King argues that: ‘There is something intolerable about the concept of tolerance and that if we concede a power to tolerate we logically concede the power to be intolerant’. Localism’s version of respect sets locals up as legislators and guardians of their own laws, and perpetuates a very narrow sense of how things can be done.

One of the youths said he would never kiss the flag, he didn’t agree with John Howard’s policies on Aboriginal rights and refugees. The other grommet screwed up his face and called him unAustralian. He threatened to punch him if he ever rubbished the flag again.

Cultural Studies researcher Adam Gall from the University of Sydney explained to me that flag waving is a test of loyalty. By waving a flag at another the flag-waver demands ‘proof’ of unquestioning loyalty to what they think the nation is and ‘Australian values’. If a person ‘respects’ the flag they get to move about freely and safely. But if a person feels negative about aspects of the Australian state and does not respond as they are supposed to, the flag-waver finds their ‘proof’ that they are unAustralian and disrespectful.

Federal and state politicians have been claiming that the request by BDO organisers is an over-reaction and that the issue is simply one of law and order. Kick out the thugs, not the flag.

After the Cronulla riots John Howard made a distinction between the thugs at Cronulla and ‘real’ Australians. In a similar vein, Morris Iemma claimed that the BDO organisers needed to target the thugs and not stop other concert-goers from showing their pride in Australia.

Acts of violence which use our flag as their emblem may not be common, but they are certainly designed to send a message to non Anglo groups in our community about who belongs and who doesn’t. It’s a message which determines who gets to feel safe and who lives with fear.

A set of waves approached and the group of surfers dispersed. While I was disgusted at some of the comments made, I was also stoked at the healthy form of the debate. I couldn’t help thinking that the young surfers were being true to the flag at that moment, using it to enact a form of democracy.

By simply framing the issues of Cronulla and the BDO as issues of law and order our politicians have once again missed the point. They have failed to listen to Australian youth’s concerns about a deeper set of social, political, and cultural problems that are besetting them at this time - questions of globalisation, transnational terrorism, deregulation of industries, and multiculturalism.

The organisers of the BDO are doing better than the politicians. They have responded to concerns from their patrons real concerns about safety stemming from last year. The organisers also paid attention to Australian youth’s concerns about Aboriginal rights, and changed the date so as not to offend Indigenous Australians sadness at the fact that Australia Day also implicitly commemorates their colonisation. Perhaps, rather than trying to score cheap political points by having a go at the BDO organisers and their patrons, Australia’s politicians could use Australia Day to try listening to them.

Dr Clifton Evers has been surfing for over thirty years and has a habit of pacing the floor and twitching all night when a new winter swell is on its way. He is a surfer/writer/intellectual and wrote his PhD on surf culture. He researches gender and cultural studies at the University of New South Wales. He's been published on surfing and men's issues, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, and is an editor of Kurungabaa: A Journal of Literature, History and Ideas from the Sea.

'Australia Day, Flag, and the Big Day Out' was published in Famous Reporter 35, June 2007.