I’m not buying it

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.

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

More by Jennifer Mills ›

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  1. The trend in Perth is for cars to drive around draped in Aussie flags and stickers saying ‘Australia – love it or leave it’. So does this mean you have to love everything about Australia, including the racism of morons in flag-draped trucks? Or can you be a tiny bit critical of this so-called egalitarian country?
    The Australian flag has been hijacked by racists in the same way you see council estates in London draped in the St Georges cross flag in protest against immigrants. I won’t have anything to do with it.

  2. Howard’s response to the Cronulla riot was that ‘there is no underlying racism in Australia’!!! Since Tampa and the riots all the stickers notifying us of how full Australia is have appeared. I don’t know how this can be reconciled, certainly not by one term in Government. The apology was a decent start but policy needs to be put into practice to support the initiatives. The stickers lie, we are very very far from full. I’d imagine 222 years ago the indigenous people watching the strange spectacle in Port Jackson would have thought the country was full. Maybe it’s time for a new flag? Something representing the true history of this great nation, and embracing its current multicultural identity.

  3. There is definitely an element in some flag bearing parts of our community of ‘up yours if your not white and if you’re not happy leave’ but damning every young (or older) person who has a flag or cars with a flag out the window is just reverse discrimination. Yes they are young and have a flag therefore they are obviously going to get really pissed – maybe, but you don’t know that (unless you’re psychic or know them personally) – and they are obviously racist and a bogan and stupid. Now what is that if not a sweeping generalisation. Maybe they just saw the flag at one of those cheap as shit stores and bought it because it was Australia Day – like half the country.

  4. that’s kinda my point, gabrielle – that people don’t think about it cause it’s just a brand. i dont want to discriminate against them, i just want to bail them up and ask them what the hell they think they are up to.

  5. Cronulla riots “no underlying racism”
    Blackface skits “no underlying racism”
    Racially motivated violence “no underlying racism”
    Racist television commercials “no underlying racism”

    The dj has changed but the record’s still the same. The problem is that we keep pointing at the dj, rather than cutting the sound system and mass-confronting the hordes of people wildly getting jiggy with it on the dancefloor.

  6. Interesting post … the flag considered not as state fetishism but as a kind of commodity fetishism. Thought provoking.

    I sympathise with your remarks about missing the hate figure of Howard. I grew up in the UK and that was Thatcher, for me, until Blair proved himself just as good (bad) a target. The malevolence, of course, is in the system of power relations, not in any one individual, but it is convenient to have a visceral and personal figurehead for everything one stands against. A false comfort, though, perhaps…?

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