Australia Day: Triple J, MLA, and the Symbolic Smokescreen

07/06/2021

(The following piece is my essay assessment for Media and Society at the University of Queensland).

The Australia Day debate surrounding the “Change the Date” movement has generated growing controversy every year as we get closer and closer to January 26th. The aim of the movement is to move Australia Day away from the darker and more brutal aspects of Australia’s history, much of which sprung from the declaration of a British penal colony in 1788. Rather than a celebration, many dissident voices view the day as one of mourning, the beginning of an invasion and wiping out of the indigenous populations and their land and traditions. Much has been done in recent decades to cement the dominant hegemonic view of a celebratory white (and generally male) experience, including attempts to sanitise this image (Brooker, 2017)1.

However, even these heated national discussions are only interested in and focussed on the symbolic aspects of a much larger and more material issue. That is, while symbolic representations surrounding national events and our indigenous populations are extremely important in terms of questioning and dismantling dominant narratives and giving voice to those previously silenced, the fight over January 26th is a very surface level one. Using the government and Triple M’s responses to Triple J’s announcement to move the day of the Hottest 100, and the yearly lamb advertisements (specifically the 2017 campaign), I not only want to highlight the ways in which the current hegemonic view around Australia Day is fracturing or being defended, but also how wider control of mainstream discourse is still being enforced or obscured within a “progressive” framework.

When talking about Australian identity and political representation, Carah and Louw (2015) mention multiple possible standpoints regarding reconciliation and the national apology by Kevin Rudd in 2008. These can translate to any example, such as the Australia Day debate. The first is the mainstream hegemonic stance, with a heavy emphasis on the contributions and successes of the white settlers and a rejection of dissent as “erasing” their achievements. The second and third can be considered the mainstream dissident perspectives, acknowledging the violence that permeates this history and using symbolic processes to incorporate indigenous voices into the national identity. The final, and I believe the most ideal, stance is:

“… that these symbolic processes are only really meaningful if they are accompanied by changes in the material economic and social circumstances of indigenous people and their communities.” (Carah & Louw, 2015).2

The discourse generated by both Triple J’s Hottest 100 and the lamb advertisements created by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) fit firmly within the first three strands despite attempts to remain “apolitical”, which in turn takes mainstream focus away from the fourth, the actual material circumstances of the indigenous people they’re trying to accommodate representation for.

In 2016, Triple J tentatively brought up “the discussions around 26 January”, expressing awareness and “involvement” of the dialogue surrounding the date. This was in response to rising calls to change the date of Australia Day and to polls of their own viewers indicating many believed the Hottest 100 should be moved. As part of the ABC, Triple J tried to represent all points of view fairly and framed the move as one stepping back from the controversy rather than taking a side. As Carah notes:

“… another aspect of triple J’s statement – its refusal to use the term “Australia Day”. The discussions the statement refers to are not around the significance of “Australia Day”, or whether it’s appropriate to align the Hottest 100 with Australia Day celebrations. The discussions are simply about “January 26”.” (Carah, 2021)3

Despite this, it instantly became politically charged and received backlash from powerful hegemonic forces, most notably the Coalition government that runs the ABC. Not only was there a fracture in the hegemonic narrative from without, but now parts of the public broadcaster were, as Minister for Communication Mitch Fifield put it, inserting “themselves as participants at the very centre of this debate.” Regardless of Triple J’s stated intentions, they were “seen” as taking a side. One can imagine Fifield would not have said anything had Triple J remained silent and continued their expected and acceptable role, which – following his logic – would inherently be taking the dominant hegemony’s side.

Even this ostensibly apolitical and purely symbolic gesture was unacceptable, and media headlines ran with the controversy over a music playlist and shift in the cultural perspectives of Australia Day. Competitor Triple M also moved to take advantage of this (with their own internal objections) and, by doing so, enforced the dominant narrative. They announced they would play the “Ozzest 100”, where “listeners would vote for their favourite Australian songs, producing a countdown of classic, traditional Aussie rock music.” (Carah 2021).4 This was marketed as a snub to Triple J, bringing the “traditional” and celebratory nature of Australia Day back.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), while not weighing in on the date of Australia Day, also undertook a similar symbolic shift in 2017.5 Rather than continue to centre the advertisement on white settlers, it portrays an extremely diverse range of people and cultures who call Australia home. It makes a conscious effort to portray indigenous Australians as welcoming “hosts” holding a jovial barbeque. Brooker calls out how hollow this shift is.

“This sets up a commendable point – that we are all ‘boat people’ of one kind or another – but it’s quite a feat of historical revisionism to equate a prelude to the organised dispossession and destruction of Australia’s First Peoples with the various refugee flows of the second half of the twentieth century.” (Brooker, 2017)

He points out that “progressives” were quite receptive to this advertising, with various commentators and journalists portraying it as “trailblazing Indigenous rights” activism. It sets aside the Australia Day label and does skyrocket modern symbolic representation, challenging the former symbolic hegemony, but continues to maintain the dominant narrative by extensively whitewashing our history and not actually bringing any attention to genuine issues of power and material circumstances.

Tony Birch lays out quite a scathing critique of this style of campaigning:

“Such is the rhetoric of symbolic gestures in settler-colonial societies incapable of countenancing either the relinquishment of power, or the contemplation of genuine remorse. A change to the date of an unreflected national pageant will do nothing to shake the collective psyche from a pathological need to wave a flag dominated by the symbol of Imperialism and bloody conquest.” (Birch, 2018)6

Rather than actively work towards dealing with the myriad of concerns our indigenous populations have, the mainstream “dissidence” to the standing hegemonic order and narrative is nothing more than the same narratives and systems with a nicer face and a more symbolically optimistic outlook on the future. Any mention of historical wrongs is limited to simple “acknowledgement” and are hotly contested by those who desire the continued existence of white hegemonic dominance, leaving the discussion looping back and forth each year with little mention of material circumstances, and even less action taken by those in positions of power.

One such action would be the signing of an official treaty with our indigenous peoples and creating a third chamber of Parliament, or at the very least a government body of indigenous advisors fulfilling a similar role. Shireen Morris lambasts those who recognise this prudent course of action but instead push for changing the date.

“This is a cop out. It suggests that meaningful constitutional recognition through a First Nations voice is too hard, and that changing the date is a reasonable alternative.” (Morris, 2018)7

Morris, like Birch, does not believe changing the date of Australia Day is meaningful. Like Triple J moving the Hottest 100 or MLA giving visual representation to the multicultural nature of Australia, the debates that we are engaged with each year are merely symbolic. While I contest these symbolic steps are important – if still warranting criticism in their own right – in dismantling the dominant white narrative, they are just one part of what should be a much greater movement. Instead, these more abstract arguments are taken up by those in power who oppose this fracturing and change as a means to make dissent appear “divisive” and to prevent any real conversations taking place.

From high levels of incarceration (Korrf)8 to significant disparities in health outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians (AIHW, 2015)9, not to mention the environmental concerns, from uranium found in rural WA water supplies, the intense 2019-2020 bushfires, and fossil fuel projects like Adani, we have a long way to go before we can talk about celebrating a national identity. What it means to be Australian – or, indeed, to be labelled “un-Australian” (Blakkarly, 2017)10 – is changing. Or more accurately, it never really existed, and it won’t until we are able to take an honest and active approach towards reconciliation beyond symbolic grumblings.

References

  1. Brooker, B. (2017). Meating diversity: a progressive charade. Overland, 23 January. Retrieved from https://overland.org.au/2017/01/meating-diversity-a-progressive-charade/
  2. Carah, N., & Louw, E. (2015). Media and Society: Production, Content & Participation. London. Sage.
  3. Carah, N. (2021). Triple J’s Hottest 100: Negotiating Debate. (Course content).
  4. Carah, N. (2021). Triple M’s Ozzest 100: Re-Affirming Consensus. (Course content).
  5. Meat and Livestock Australia. (2017). Australia Day Lamb Ad 2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBTWc4i_Fhw
  6. Birch, T. (2018). A change of date will do nothing to shake Australia from its colonial-settler triumphalism. IndigenousX, 20 January. Retrieved from https://indigenousx.com.au/tony-birch-a-change-of-date-will-do-nothing-to-shake-australia-from-its-colonial-settler-triumphalism/
  7. Morris, S. (2018). Don’t Change the Date, Change Its Meaning. Meanjin Quarterly. Retrieved from https://meanjin.com.au/blog/dont-change-the-date-change-the-date/
  8. Korrf, J. (2021). Aboriginal prison rates. Creative Spirits, 7 February. Retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/law/aboriginal-prison-rates
  9. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2015). The health and welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: 2015. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/indigenous-health-welfare/indigenous-health-welfare-2015/data
  10. Blakkarly, J. (2017). Un-Australian. Griffith Review. Retrieved from https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/un-australian-national-identity-twenty-first-century/

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