Australia Day provides a unique opportunity for those who make their home on Terra Australis to affirm our national identity. The celebrations are diverse reflecting the passions of the people. They include civic events and protest gatherings, BBQ’s and backyard cricket, music and fireworks. For many indigenous Australians it is a day of sorrow as they lament the loss of country. For new citizens it is a day of recognition, renewed hope and genuine opportunity. For many it is a day to reflect on our diversity and ponder our achievements. It is a day to give thanks.
Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull reminded us that we are citizens of a nation whose identity is not defined by religion or race, but rather, by shared political values, open to all, democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect, and our deep instinct in our Australian DNA that everyone is entitled to a fair go.
But does this capture who we really are? It has been suggested that if there is one song that lives in the hearts of all Australians, it is “Waltzing Matilda”. The song, written by A. B. “Banjo” Paterson in 1895, has played a significant part in defining the Australian character. “Waltzing Matilda” inspires the Australian spirit. It can be a feel-good song, a rousing chorus or simply impart a feeling of nostalgia. It is sung at sporting events, in schools and by expatriates all over the world.
It has been widely accepted that “Waltzing Matilda” is probably based on the following story:
In Queensland in 1891 the Great Shearers Strike brought the colony close to civil war and was broken only after the Premier of Queensland, Samuel Griffith, called in the military. In September 1894, on a station called Dagworth (north of Winton), some shearers were again on strike. It turned violent with the strikers firing their rifles and pistols in the air and setting fire to the woolshed at the Dagworth Homestead, killing dozens of sheep. The owner of Dagworth Homestead and three policemen gave chase to a man named Samuel Hoffmeister – also known as “French(y)”. Rather than be captured, Hoffmeister shot and killed himself at the Combo Waterhole.
Our familiarity with the words of the song may have obscured its meaning
Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”
As the Waltzing Matilda Centre says, “We must be the only nation on Earth that made a hero of a fictitious suicidal itinerant worker.”
But Banjo Paterson has captured something of our unique Australian identity – stubborn, non conformist, principled, rebellious, defiant, unapologetic, and reckless.
We like to convince ourselves that Australia is an egalitarian society. However, there remains widespread inequality and injustice. People are marginalised through no fault of their own. People on the outer may feel despair, believing that no one really understands and no one cares. It is at such times that thoughts of suicide may enter their consciousness and shape their future outlook.