By Rob O’Brien
Australia Day is meant to be a day of unity, reflection, national pride and bon vivant across the continent: a flag-waving, chest-pumping, jamboree to celebrate all things Australian.
As well as community events, citizenship ceremonies and a reenactment of the ‘first fleet’ at Sydney’s photogenic harbour, the national holiday tends to bring with it a mix of self-reflection and fist-pumping patriotism.
This week a television ad meant to celebrate Australia was pulled from schedules because it was deemed offensive.
In the ad, businessman Dick Smith, an advocate of buying Australian made products and a campaigner against population growth, hands a jar of ‘OzEmite’ to a group of asylum seekers, stumbling ashore from the burned out wreck of a boat.
”The taste is a beauty,” Dick says, “why else would thousands be trying to get here?”
Such displays of nationalism is one of Australia Day’s core ingredients, but in 2013 the traditional soul-searching is being shaped by forces out of its control.
Almost a quarter (24.6%) of Australia’s population was born overseas, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics with more than 40% having at least one overseas-born parent.
Of its most recent migrants just 33% speak English as a first language at home and more than 10% don’t speak English at all. Foreigners now make up a sizeable chunk of Australia’s working population and foreign languages are as common in Sydney or Melbourne as they are in London or Paris.
As its demographics change, Australia is still brimming with confidence pushed along by two unbroken decades of annual growth, low inflation and an unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent in December, way below the OECD average of 8%.
But there’s a creeping anxiety. Serious doubts are being raised as to whether the wheels are finally coming off the great mining wagon – some say 2012 was the last year of the boom – with questions being asked about where the wealth from two decades of growth was spent.
Giving the Australia Day address in Sydney this week, paralympian Kurt Fearnley – renowned for having crawled the 90-kilometre Kokoda trail – pointed out that a staggering 45% of Australians with a disability live in, or near poverty, more than double the OECD average of 22 per cent.
The welfare organisation the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) last year reported that 2.2 million people – 1 in 8 Australians – are now living below the poverty line, almost 600,000 of them children.
None of that will matter once the barbecue has been lit, but as more questions are raised about Australia’s ‘mining first’ economy, you can’t help but wonder whether the country is as confident in 2013 as it has been in previous years.