For the last few years, there has been a growing annual assault against Australian identity. It starts off in early January, a rude awakening from New Year’s celebrations, and rises to a crescendo of shrill hyperbole by Australia Day. Despite the vast majority of Australians loving our great country and embracing Australia Day, the cries of the anti-Australians are having an impact. Our own national broadcaster, the ABC, shifted the Triple J Hottest 100 Countdown from its traditional spot on Australia to a more “neutral day”.
In this age of identity politics, could Anzac Day be next?
Since its inception in 1916, Anzac Day has been the subject of annual criticism. Its critics say it glorifies war and militarises our history. For them, Anzac Day is racist, too masculine and too white. But the criticism in recent years has taken on a nastier tone. Just recall last year’s Anzac Day when internet-activist Yassmin Abdel Magied wrote an incendiary Tweet: “LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine …)”.
Other moves to undermine Anzac Day are more subtle. This year, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was outed for having tasked bureaucrats to see if Anzac Day should commemorate frontier conflicts with indigenous Australians. While he backflipped on those plans, Anzac Day as we know it remains under threat.
For Australians, Anzac Day’s importance has waxed and waned. It was originally a day for veterans of the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign to gather to commemorate the fallen. As time went on, Anzac Day expanded to include all those involved in the First World War, and then veterans from other campaigns. Participation in Anzac Day waned during the 1960s and 70s, before once more gaining in significance during the 1980s as the RSL relaxed rules relating to relatives marching on behalf of veterans and allowed veterans who had only served in Australia to participate as well.
Over the last decade, attendance at Anzac Day Dawn Services around Australia has grown considerably. Attendance at the Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra reached a peak of 128,700 in 2015 on the centenary anniversary of Gallipoli. Despite poor weather in 2017, almost 40,000 attended. What’s more, there is anecdotal evidence that more and more young people are attending these services to pay their respects.
What is the appeal of Anzac Day, particularly for those who have no direct experience of war?
For many Australians, Anzac Day is Australia’s truly sacred national day, in contrast to the joyful celebration of Australia Day, or the Allied commemoration of the end of World War II on Remembrance Day. It’s more than about the history of sacrifice in war, although this is incredibly important for our understanding of the day.
Fundamentally, Anzac Day is about values. It’s a day that commemorates our shared Australian values – of mateship and camaraderie, of self-sacrifice, egalitarianism, courage, resilience, loyalty, dignity and respect. It is also an important reminder of our freedom and the basis on which we have represented our great nation in the face of freedom’s opponents.
Some critics of Anzac Day argue that we spend too much money memorialising war and Australians dying in vain.
The cost of the Anzac centenary commemorations from 2014-2018 is estimated at approximately $552 million, with $100 million spent on the newly opened Monash Centre at Villiers-Brettoneux in France. It’s true this is a lot of money. And when it’s our taxes footing the bill, it is fair enough to ask if this is money well spent.
But as the years pass and we lose our direct connection to veterans, isn’t it these memorials which act as sober reminders of the sacrifice of war, of the values of freedom that our forebears fought for, and of the herculean efforts that must always be expended to avoid war? This investment is ultimately about “Lest we forget”. Because it is all too easy to forget, especially the vast majority of us thankfully have no direct experience of war.
Lest we forget is not to glorify war, but cherish and commemorate the profound sacrifice, and remember that war as a method of conflict resolution is to be avoided.
Georgina Downer is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs
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