The numbers of Gallipoli veterans have almost entirely dried up. Hardly any First World War ex-servicemen are left. The ex-service community of the Second World War is also diminishing. One might have thought that Anzac Day was destined to disappear.
Yet somehow, younger generations born after all of Australia’s wars have begun to discover the day and to observe it with interest, fascination and even pride. Anzac Day, it seems, is back! Anzac Day is alive again!
So much so that there are suggestions that this might, and should, become the national day and replace the twenty-sixth of January because the symbolism of Anzac Day is superior.
What is the argument in favour of Anzac Day?
It symbolises Australian courage and striving. It commemorates the discovery of national identity and character. It resounds with colour, charisma and legend. It includes the aboriginal and not only the white community. For newer Australians it is seminal in the Australian ethos which they have made their own. It enables a national day to begin with solemnity and move into celebration.
From the practical point of view, it is a better time of year than the end of January, when many people are still on holiday. And 26 January itself has not always been such a major occasion; until relatively recently it was known by other names and lacked major significance.
What statement would Anzac Day make as Australia’s national day?
Critics accuse the day of glorifying or mythologising war. Which is nonsense. No-one believes war has any glory; no-one suggests that is what Anzac Day is about. Ask anyone who was ever on active service.
No; Anzac Day symbolises Australian identity based on mateship, even a streak of larrikinism, and on doing something for your country. Australia needs both these concepts today.
It needs mateship. No-one can be proud of the inter-community, inter-ethnic tensions that have become a worrying sign of the Australian scene. Older Australians prejudiced against newer? Aboriginal Australians denied dignity by non-aborigines? Migrant groups who import the conflicts that have torn their homelands apart? There is not much Australian mateship there.
And what about the growing insecurity of every Australian whatever their background? Suburban streets that are unsafe to walk? Peaceful homes that are almost fortresses? Australians frightened of other Australians? Yes, other countries are far worse, but we do not need these manifestations here on any level. We need mateship and fair-go.
Anzac Day also stands for doing something for your country, exerting yourself to celebrate, enhance and enrich it. Instinctively. Lovingly. Proudly.
Rorting the system is out. The world does not owe you a living! Corruption is out. There have to be standards!
Doing something for your country means bringing your talents, energies and interests to bear in solving national problems, promoting national ideals, creating a climate of good citizenship.
When you go overseas as an Australian you come back feeling good about Australia. It is not only that here there is space and the sun shines. It is because of the ethos and tradition which Anzac symbolises, and because we have created a way of life that has no equal anywhere.
That’s what we need to say on whatever date is our national day. We need to say it most of all to ourselves, that we have something precious here, and we have to cherish, appreciate, celebrate, preserve, protect and strengthen it. We have to ensure that no-one, for any reason, is allowed to undermine Australia and Australianism.
That is what the ex-service community have always known. That is what Anzac Day has always represented. As far as I am concerned, I hope it will become our national day. But whether that happens or not, it is good to see the day rediscovered.
This article first appeared in April, 1996.