We’re a weird mob, we Australians, even weirder than we were in 1957 when John O’Grady wrote his book of (roughly) that name. We celebrate Australia Day on each anniversary of the establishment by Britain of an offshore detention prison in a sh**hole on the far side of the world on 26 January 1788. Neither the convicts nor their guards wanted to be here at all. They certainly didn’t arrive with the hope of building a new nation (although later free settlers did). But that date also marked the beginning of a shameful period when our forefathers butchered tens of thousands of Aboriginal people to deter them from objecting to having their lands stolen, while inadvertently killing hundreds of thousands more by introducing exotic diseases to which they had no resistance.
Nevertheless, according to no less an authority than former prime minister Tony Abbott, you can make a good case for the proposition that Governor Arthur Phillip was Australia’s George Washington. He was certainly more enlightened and thoughtful than most of the Governors who followed him, but the Washington comparison is a tad hyperbolic, not to mention the fact that Washington fought for America’s freedom from Britain whereas Phillip was Britain’s prison warden.
Our other important national holiday commemorates a huge and bloody military defeat where our young soldiers pointlessly stormed the cliffs of Gallipoli at the behest of pompous English politicians and buffoonishly inept military commanders, were slaughtered in their thousands and then withdrew again.
Arguably our single most popular national hero is Ned Kelly, who many thought was quite a nice chap for a cop-killing bank robber; while our most popular national song is about a sheep-stealing swagman who committed suicide by drowning himself in a billabong rather than be captured by the cops.
Then there’s our most legendary local event, involving a rebellion at Eureka Stockade at Ballarat by a biggish group of tax-evading gold miners, who have more recently become heroic figures for modern-day white supremacists and neo-nazis.
Nevertheless, there’s something strangely attractive about the laconic affection of us Aussies for people and events that the citizens of many other nations would regard as the very antithesis of heroic. Better, for example, than the habitual jingoistic hubris and boastful triumphalism currently epitomised by President Trump. The mythical self-image of the Aussie is embodied by a seemingly happy-go-lucky bloke who only reveals his inner steel when needed, like Hoges’ “That’s not a knife, THIS is a knife”.
In the best of all worlds we wouldn’t need to foster nationalist sentiment at all, whether of the laconic or loudly boastful variety. In one sense Samuel Johnson was right. Patriotism really is the last refuge of the scoundrel (think Peter Dutton, Pauline Hanson or Tony Abbott drawing spurious “battlelines” for momentary political advantage). Mind you, our reactionary leaders’ inflammatory dog-whistling reliably finds a significant minority audience. Old Sam Johnson didn’t mention the legions of drunken bogan bone-heads driving around in flag-bedecked utes festooned with stickers reading ‘Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!’, ‘Australia, Love It or Leave It’ and ‘Fuck Off We’re Full’.
But in the real world, as theorists like Jonathan Haidt argue, we are all pre-programmed by thousands of years of evolution and social conditioning to be tribal or communal creatures. Although nearly all Australians live in huge prosperous metropolises where in reality we are comfortable and have little to fear, we still yearn for a sense of belonging in a small tribal community, and that requires defining ourselves against the “other” whom we must fight to preserve our Australian values (Oceania versus Eastasia). If an internal enemy doesn’t actually exist, as in modern-day Australia, then our more scoundrel-ish leaders will create fictitious enemies (Asians, Muslims, Africans, Aborigines, welfare recipients) for short-term partisan advantage and draw “battlelines” so that right-thinking Australian patriots know who they should hate.
Moreover, on an international level, the potentially aggressive Westphalian nation state isn’t about to wither and die. We won’t be able to relax, disarm, sing Kumbaya and leave our future confidently to the United Nations or even the European Union (assuming we could get a wider free entry pass than the one that currently allows us to enter the Eurovision Song Contest). Some sort of sense of national unity/identity will remain necessary for the foreseeable future, and it will need to be nurtured and curated sensitively but continuously. That’s a bit tricky for Australia, despite the fact that we can truthfully if laconically boast that we are one of the world’s most successful multicultural societies. We only achieved that admirable outcome through careful nurturing by generations of politicians and bureaucrats since we decided to embark on a Mass Migration Policy in the wake of World War 2, having decided that populating was preferable to perishing.
We eventually abandoned the legal structure of both White Australia and legalised discrimination against Indigenous Australians, but the psychic traces of those forms of white tribalism remain evident, and Australia Day is the most prominent example. Cultural evolution isn’t as slow as its biological namesake, but it doesn’t happen overnight either. Moreover, tribalism tends to re-emerge with renewed virulence in times of uncertainty and insecurity, such as today when real incomes have been stagnant for 3 or 4 years and the US and North Korea are threatening to nuke each other.
So how do we curate the continuance and further development of a durable, secure, civilised, multicultural Australia of which we can continue to be proud? A national holiday that celebrates Australian national values is potentially a valuable tool: helping to nurture broad and fundamental values like unity in cultural diversity, love of democracy, basic civil liberties, equality of opportunity and mutual respect or at least tolerance. But is it feasible to achieve those objectives if Australia’s national day remains fixed on 26 January, when that date is deeply offensive for so many First Nations Australians? How does the date assist in forging unity from not only diversity but bitter division? NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner made an attempt at squaring that circle in a statement a couple of days ago:
Although acknowledging the date of the national holiday was divisive, Mr Gunner said Australia Day should be about unity.
“January 26 must meaningfully acknowledge the entire story of our nation. This means more than acknowledgement of country and a smoking ceremony,” he said.
“It means a genuine celebration of the Aboriginal contribution to our national identity. A celebration of all this continent’s waves of immigration.
Prominent Indigenous lawyer Shireen Morris advanced a similar argument rather more carefully in an article titled ‘Don’t Change the Date, Change Its Meaning’ in which she argued that the Indigenous Voice to Parliament and Makarrata Commission proposed by the Uluru Statement From the Heart should both be introduced and implemented on 26 January. It’s an interesting idea, and should in a rational country result in our national day becoming a celebration of developing harmony and national unity rather than of division and white supremacy, but whether those white supremacists and more general reactionaries would allow that to happen is another question.
We might be better leaving 26 January as a public holiday to be celebrated by those who wish to do so for whatever reason, perhaps changing its name to “First Fleet Day”. We could then seek agreement on a more inherently unifying national day devoid of the poisonous overtones of white genocide indelibly imprinted on 26 January. Some argue for New Year’s Day – the anniversary of the commencement of the Australian Constitution on 1 January 1901); others 9 May – the anniversary of the first sitting of Federal Parliament on 9 May 1901); still others 3 March – the anniversary of the commencement of the Australia Act (Cth) on 3 March 1986, which completed Australia’s gradual progression to full sovereignty – leaving aside the fact that we still have an English monarch bearing the fictitious title “Queen of Australia”.
None of those dates carry the inspiration or romance of (say) American Independence Day (the anniversary of US victory over British colonialism on 4 July 1776) or Bastille Day (when France overthrew its oppressive monarchy on 14 July 1789). Nor for that matter New Zealand’s Waitangi Day (the anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi with its Maori people signed on 6 February 1840).
Australian Independence Day
But Australia actually DOES have a date, 9 October 1942, which commemorates events just as inspiring as the American War of Independence or the French Revolution, and arguably just as constitutionally significant as the Australia Act 1986 or even the commencement of the Australian Constitution. The Constitution, while creating our structure of national governance, did not actually make Australia a nation with sovereign independence from Britain. In the short term it merely gave birth to a federated British colony, with the “mother country” retaining the power to make laws for us or override existing laws by “paramount force” whenever it chose. The Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 was introduced into Parliament on 1 October 1942 and proclaimed on 9 October 1942, with its commencement notionally backdated to the commencement of World War 2 on 1 September 1939. As Chris Clark explained in an article about an aspect of this story that I intend discussing in a later post:
Under the Statute, Britain and its Dominions were defined as ‘autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any respect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations’. Under this arrangement, the Dominions were finally sovereign governments in their own right, able to amend or repeal British legislation applying to them as they saw fit, while the British Parliament was prevented from legislating on their behalf unless specifically requested to do so.
All that was necessary to effect this change was for the national parliament of each Dominion to pass a measure formally adopting the Statute. This Australia had failed to do, unlike Canada, South Africa and Eire (the Irish Free State), which all quickly took up the enhanced national status on offer. Under conservative governments which followed the expulsion from office of the last Labor ministry led by James Scullin in 1932, Australia (with New Zealand) had preferred to hang back and cling to the safety net of the past. There had, in fact, been an adoption Bill twice introduced into Parliament in 1937, while Menzies was Attorney-General, but it received so little priority that it was allowed to lapse for want of time on each occasion.
The Battle of Australia
However, in addition to its considerable constitutional significance for Australia’s sovereignty, 9 October 1942 also marks events in Australia’s history that should be every bit as inspiring for Australians as American Independence Day or Bastille Day for the Americans and French respectively. The date closely coincides with Australia’s successful defence of our nation from Japanese attack. Most people still assume that Australia has never come under severe attack or been subject to the imminent risk of invasion and conquest by a foreign power. But that isn’t the case, even though the risk was downplayed at the time to avoid causing community panic.
Largely unaided by either British or US forces, Australian forces repelled a Japanese attack on the large Australian base at Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea on 7 September 1942, preventing the Japanese from attacking Port Moresby from the sea as their land-based forces advanced down the Kokoda Track. The Australian victory at Milne Bay was the first time Japanese forces had been defeated since they had begun their expansionary military conquests into China in the 1930s.
Moreover, by 28 September 1942 the Japanese advance down the Kokoda track had halted within sight of Port Moresby, and on that night Japanese forces began quietly withdrawing back northwards up the Track, eventually departing from their original bridgeheads in Gona and Buna on the north coast by February 1942 after months of intermittent but bitter fighting with pursuing Australian forces. The Japanese decision to retreat occurred partly because their High Command had realised that their supply lines were over-extended, especially in light of the recently-commenced US attack on Japanese-occupied Guadalcanal, but partly also because the Australian defending forces had proven adept at jungle guerilla warfare and inflicted much heavier casualties on the Japanese than they had expected. Thus the imminent threat of invasion of Australia effectively ended on 28 September 1942, just three days before the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 was introduced into Parliament, although the full significance of the Japanese retreat wasn’t realised until quite a bit later. It spelled the end of ten months of increasingly mortal peril for the Australian nation.
That ten month period began with the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, which resulted in the US formally entering the War against both Germany and Japan, ending its previous stance of isolationism. The Japanese invasion of the Philippines, then an American possession, began the next day with General MacArthur eventually withdrawing to Australia on 11 March 1942. With Japanese forces already advancing rapidly down the Malayan Peninsula throughout December 1941 and January 1942 towards the British “impregnable bastion” of Singapore, Prime Minister Churchill sought an urgent meeting with US President Roosevelt and his military commanders in Washington on 23 December 1941. However, far from seeking American support to defend Singapore and British Pacific possessions including Australia, Churchill actually wanted almost exactly the opposite. He feared that the US would concentrate on the Pacific War in the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and would leave Britain to fight Germany and Italy with minimal support. Churchill pressed for a secret “Germany First” strategy, and after a series of secret pre-Christmas meetings Roosevelt agreed. But no hint of the secret Arcadia Agreement was given either to the public or other Allies including Australia:
Churchill appreciated that the “Germany First” war strategy would put Australia, British Malaya, the Philippines, and the rest of South-East Asia at serious risk of Japanese occupation if Japan entered the war on the side of Germany and Italy. However, this prospect does not appear to have greatly concerned Churchill whose top war priorities were the defence of Britain, support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, defending the Suez Canal, and protecting India. As Churchill saw it, the Philippines, Australia, British Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies could be recovered from Japanese occupation after Germany had been defeated. …
The Commander in Chief of the US Navy Admiral Ernest J. King … agreed in principle with Churchill’s “Germany First” war strategy, but he insisted that the vaguely worded Arcadia agreement include words that would permit the United States to defend positions in the Pacific that were deemed necessary “to safeguard vital interests”. The words “vital interests” were not defined, and King argued successfully for inclusion in the agreement of words authorizing the seizure of “vantage points” from which a counter-offensive against Japan could be developed.
The Arcadia Conference ended with Churchill and the US Army believing that the United States would pursue a war strategy that placed total priority on defeating Germany and relegated the Pacific to a secondary theatre in which the United States would pursue a passive defensive posture until such time as Germany had been defeated. The US Army position was largely motivated by self-interest. The generals knew that there would be little employment for two million under-trained American soldiers in the difficult island fighting that characterized the Pacific War. The only place to deploy an army of two million recruits was on the continent of Europe, and the American generals were determined to send them there.
The US Navy was well satisfied with the final wording of the Arcadia agreement. Churchill may not have realized it, but Admiral King was determined to prevent Australia becoming part of the Japanese empire and to secure the lines of communication between Australia and the United States. The Pacific Fleet had been savaged by the treacherous Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, but the four American fleet carriers had survived. Admiral King had been authorized by Arcadia to “safeguard vital interests” and seize “vantage points” in the Pacific from which a counter-offensive against Japan could be developed. King interpreted the wording of the Arcadia agreement as allowing him to go on the offensive against Japan with the limited naval resources available to him.
Curtin had earlier spoken with Churchill and been given certain assurances:
Although repeatedly assuring Australia’s Prime Minister John Curtin of the British government’s commitment to the defence of Singapore, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already written off the defence of Singapore as a lost cause when he was giving those assurances. He knew that Singapore was only a “cardboard fortress”, whose defenders lacked tanks, artillery, adequate air defences, and modern fighter aircraft. After Japan entered the war on the side of its Axis partners Germany and Italy, Churchill was only interested in saving Burma and India in the Asia-Pacific region, and he ignored pleas from Curtin for meaningful reinforcement for the defenders of Singapore. Although not admitting this to Curtin, Churchill was obsessed with defeating Germany and was prepared to abandon Australia to the Japanese if they wanted it.
To ease Curtin’s deepening concern for Australia’s safety, and resist Australia withdrawing its military forces from Britain, North Africa, and the Middle East, Churchill assured Curtin that a British fleet would be dispatched to save Australia if Japan invaded in massive strength. This was a lie. Churchill had no intention of sending a British fleet to save Australia from a Japanese invasion. He had already betrayed Australia at the Arcadia Conference (see above).
Curtin was becoming convinced during December 1941 that Churchill’s assurances of British military support for Australia against Japan were worthless, and he was not prepared to see Australia abandoned by the British to a Japanese invasion. On 26 December 1941, the Australian Prime Minister addressed the nation in a radio address that made it quite clear that Australia was in grave danger from the Japanese and reflected Curtin’s disillusionment with Churchill’s assurances that Britain would furnish powerful support if Australia was threatened with Japanese invasion. In the course of this famous speech, which was published in the Melbourne Herald newspaper on 27 December 1941, Curtin said,
“Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”
The statement caused a sensation. Churchill was furious, and addressed an angry cable to Curtin. President Roosevelt mistakenly believed that Australia was a British colony in 1941, and felt that Curtin’s speech smacked of disloyalty. When it was explained to Roosevelt later that Australia was an independent nation, the American President came to respect Curtin’s strong leadership and patriotism.
By January 1942 it was becoming increasingly obvious that Churchill’s earlier assurances to Curtin were valueless and that Singapore would soon fall. Curtin ordered the battle-seasoned 6th and 7th Divisions of the Second AIF back from North Africa and the Middle East to defend Australia. The 7th Division embarked for the voyage home on 30 January, by which time the Japanese had already besieged Singapore Island. British engineers blew up the causeway between Johor and Singapore the next day 31 January. The British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse had earlier been sunk by Japanese planes, and the Allies had completely inadequate air power to defend Singapore. Allied forces (including many Australians) surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. Four days later on 19 February 1942 the same Japanese carrier attack group that had bombed Pearl Harbour 10 weeks before launched an early morning bombing attack on Darwin in overwhelming numbers. More than 300 people were killed and both Australian and American shipping sunk. It was the first of more than 70 bombing raids on Australia’s north over the succeeding two years.
Nevertheless, even while the 2nd AIF troops were on their way back to Australia, Churchill made a last ditch attempt to get them to divert to Burma to defend British oil interests there. Curtin refused and ordered the ships to continue on to Australia, although he gave a sop to Churchill by agreeing to the disembarkation of a small number of troops to help defend Ceylon from Japanese attack. The rest of the 6th and 7th Division troops reached Australia in mid-March, and most of them were in due course redeployed to Papua New Guinea.
Did Curtin exaggerate the Japanese threat to Australia?
Some historians have subsequently asserted that Curtin exaggerated the extent of the Japanese threat to Australia. However the better view is that the peril was indeed both real and imminent:
There is a considerable body of evidence, including the views of distinguished historians, senior Japanese Navy officers, and the official history of Japan’s involvement in World War II, to support a conclusion that the Japanese intended to become the masters of Australia in 1942, either by (a) invasion of northern Australia and severing Australia’s lifeline to the United States, or (b) severing Australia’s lifeline to the United States and then pressuring Australia into surrender to Japan. …
Japan’s top admirals and generals were aware even before Pearl Harbor that Australia represented a serious threat to Japan as an ally of the United States. They knew that the Americans would be able to use Australia and its two Territories on the island of New Guinea (Papua and the New Guinea League Mandate) as bases from which to launch their counter-offensive against Japan’s greatly expanded southern defensive perimeter. Being conscious of this threat, Japan’s military leaders were determined to isolate Australia from the United States, and bring Australia under Japanese control. It was only in the means deemed necessary to compel Australia’s submission to Japan that there was a difference of approach. …
At the beginning of the Pacific War, the Imperial Japanese Navy had operational responsibility for the Pacific Ocean area, including Australia and its island territories. To counter the perceived threat from Australia as an American ally, the admirals of Japan’s Navy General Staff and Navy Ministry wanted to invade key areas of the northern Australian mainland in early 1942 to isolate Australia from American and British aid. To invade Australia, the Japanese Navy would require troops from the Japanese Army.
The generals of the Japanese Army General Staff, and the Prime Minister of Japan, General Hideki Tojo, appreciated that Australia posed a serious threat to Japan while it remained an ally of the United States. As early as 10 January 1942, the Army and Navy Sections of Imperial General Headquarters had resolved at a Liaison Conference to:
“Proceed with the Southern Operations, all the while blockading supply from Britain and the United States and strengthening the pressure on Australia, ultimately with the aim to force Australia to be freed from the shackles of Britain and the United States.” …
However, when the Japanese Navy requested troops for an invasion of Australia at a meeting of the Army and Navy Sections of Japan’s Imperial General Headquarters on 4 March 1942, the generals refused. They had a different but equally sinister plan for bringing Australia under Japanese control. The Japanese generals did not see a need to commit massive troop and logistical resources to the conquest of the Australian mainland in the early months of 1942. The easy capture of Rabaul on 23 January 1942 and the first bombings of Darwin on 19 February 1942 had convinced the Japanese Army that Australia had little with which to defend itself from invasion. It was the sheer size of Australia that the generals saw as an immediate problem. The generals felt that their army resources had already been heavily overextended by Japan’s rapid and massive territorial conquests, and that the Imperial Army needed time to consolidate its territorial gains. The Japanese Army was confident that Australia could be pressured into surrender to Japan by isolating it completely from the United States as part of an intensified blockade, and by applying intense psychological pressure. The Japanese plan to sever Australia’s lifeline to the United States was given the code reference “Operation FS” (also known as “FS Operation”).
By 7 March 1942, the Japanese Navy and Army had agreed that severing Australia’s lifeline to the United States (Operation FS) and pressuring Australia into submission to Japan were more important objectives than the limited invasion of Australia’s northern coast that the Navy had earlier proposed. At the Imperial General Headquarters Liaison Conference on 7 March 1942, the Navy General Staff and Navy Ministry agreed to their limited invasion proposal being deferred in favour of the Army plan to sever Australia’s lifeline to the United States and then pressure Australia into total surrender to Japan. It is important to note that the Japanese generals did not rule out their support for an invasion by force if Australia did not surrender as they expected when the Japanese noose was tightened.
However, the Japanese naval defeats by the US in the Battle of the Coral Sea and then the Battle of Midway made it much more difficult for it to achieve the plan to compel Australian surrender by means of a blockade. They might still have imposed a successful blockade and compelled Australian surrender by launching attacks on our mainland from both air and sea, had they succeeded in capturing Papua New Guinea. The Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney in May 1942 was a foretaste of what would have followed. Had Japan won complete control of PNG they would have been able to reinforce and resupply their forces by land, sea and air, and very likely enforce an effective blockade from both PNG and the Philippines. But that control was denied to them by the staunch defence by Australian forces both on the Kokoda Track and at Milne Bay. And that staunch defence was made possible by the reinforcement of mostly conscript Australian troops in PNG by the battle-hardened 6th and 7th Divisions. Moreover, it was Curtin’s courage and determination in standing up to both Churchill and Roosevelt and insisting on the return of those Divisions from North Africa and the Middle East that drove the unexpectedly staunch Australian defence. Had that not occurred, the existing hastily trained Australian conscripts on the Kokoda Track, including my then 18 year old Dad, might have met a very different fate and I would likely never have been born.
There are some large and obvious lessons to be learned and a great deal of national pride to be taken from this wartime saga that ended in our nation being saved from foreign invasion and occupation, largely by our own efforts but with some American assistance. Strangely, few Australians even now really know about and understand what actually happened or its historical and national significance. It’s time that changed, and designating 9 October 1942 as Australian Independence Day is the way to do it. That change should also include incorporating a modification of Shireen Morris’s suggestion also to implement on that date the Uluru Statement From the Heart proposals for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament and Makarrata (treaty + truth and reconciliation) Commission. That would give us a national day that will unite Australians and make all of us take pride in what we have all achieved together.