I miss John Howard on Australia Day. That’s what I thought this afternoon when I walked out of Eastside shops to see several teenage girls draped in Australian flags, off to some underage-drinking barbeque. Is that nationalism, kids? Do you seriously feel like part of a collective democratic project worth wearing around your neck? Or does it just go with the outfit?
At the risk of sounding like Grandma Marx, by crikey, why don’t the young people rebel?
Because there’s nothing to argue with when Australia and the flag have become brands. Rebelling against brands is a pointless exercise. Most brands targeted at the young already associate themselves with rebellion. To rebel, all you can do is associate yourself with a different brand – one of the wet-blanket, non-rebellious ones. But then you just look weak. If there is another option (like DIY? Find your new punk look in K-mart) it would take a strong teenager to go there.
Is the Aussie flag a brand associated with rebellion? Definitely. But what kind? The racist free-for-all of Cronulla. The cheap bogan rebellion of drinking so much you require medical attention. Underlying that there’s a lot of loyalty to a purified white history – and to the brand’s parent companies, the USA and Great Britain.
It’s particularly embarrassing that this happens in Alice Springs, where racially motivated violence is part of everyday life for many people and most of the Aboriginal population have a funny kind of citizenship of this country with special rights to be discriminated against. Kids, flaunting your white power is a mite distasteful around here.
National branding is nothing new, of course. I went to the Powerhouse in Sydney a few weeks ago and was uncomfortably reminded of the Ken Done phase Sydney went through in the 80s – a global marketing strategy-cum-urban identity makeover which successfully transformed the city’s self-image. So every generation has its tacky nationalist aesthetic. (and I wasn’t immune to it either.)
But I miss John Howard because it was so easy to point at him at this time of year and howl about flag-waving and racial profiling and asylum seekers. This week in Darwin there’s a coronial hearing about the asylum seekers who died off Ashmore Reef in 2009. Before their boat exploded they mimed slitting their own throats to show the naval officers that sending them back to Indonesia would probably mean death. We might have a new man in Canberra but we still live in an Australia which would happily ‘bypass’ human beings in that situation. I’m just not comfortable associating myself with a brand like that. The trouble with nationhood is there’s no-where else to shop.