National holiday marketing row polarises Australians

A television advertisement for lamb that takes a comic swipe at the British colonisation of Australia has incensed conservative politicians, polarised many ordinary citizens, and spurred indigenous Australians to riposte with a satirical spoof “advertisement” of their own. The controversy has highlighted Australia’s struggle with its racially-tainted past.Nikkei

The controversial ad by industry group Meat and Livestock Australia, satirises Australia Day, a nationwide public holiday on January 26 that commemorates the arrival of Britain’s so-called “First Fleet” in Sydney in 1788. The landing marked the beginning of 113 years of British colonial rule.

The commemoration has become controversial in recent years because many indigenous Australians, or Aborigines, object to celebrations on a date they see as symbolizing the beginning of a long period of dispossession and discrimination.

The two-and-a-half minute advertisement (cover image, courtesy MLA) starts with two indigenous Aboriginal Australians standing on a deserted beach, getting ready for a barbecue.

Then others begin arriving, including the Dutch (who also explored Australia’s coastline), the British First Fleet, incomers from other nations, and, to add spice to the mix, LGBT Australians on a Mardi Gras float.

​A scene from a parody of the Australian MLA advertisement by
​arts group Cope St Collective (Photo courtesy of Cope St Collective)

The ad, the latest in an annual tradition to promote lamb, has been viewed by more than 7.75 million times on YouTube, Facebook and other social media channels, according to MLA.

The ad implicitly refers to the prior claim of Australia’s indigenous Aboriginals — one British character in nautical rig says: “We, Sir, are from Great Britannia; we are the First Fleet.” After a heavy pause, the indigenous man replies with a grin: “Yeah; not quite mate.”

In a nod to Australian multiculturalism, and perhaps a dig at the government’s attempts to deter would-be illegal immigrants seeking to enter Australia by boat, Poh Ling Yeow, a Malaysian-Australian chef, says: “Hang on, aren’t we all boat people?”

The beach scene portrayed in the ad soon becomes a riotous welcoming party, with fireworks and general hilarity that features well-known Australians such as former test cricketer Adam Gilchrist and Olympic medal-winner Cathy Freeman, who is of indigenous origin.

The advertisement presents a good-humored scene of welcome and fun, and the marketing lamb message appears only obliquely with the final titles: “You never lamb alone; We love our lamb.”

Courtesy of Meat and Livestock Australia

In the comic riposte video, the British invaders run up the beach, shoot the two indigenous Australians, steal their barbec​ue, run away down the beach and start their own riotous and slightly mad dance party. Made by the Cope Street Collective, a local arts group, the video presents what many consider a more accurate view of Australian history, but remains light-hearted.

Bjorn Stewart, who wrote and acted in the Cope Street video, told the Nikkei Asian Review he thought the MLA advertisement “whitewashed Australian history.”

He said he could see that MLA was attempting a lighthearted view of an inclusive, diverse society, but he said it leaped over many decades of racism and dispossession. “I’d love that if was how it happened, in an alternative universe, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and we have to acknowledge that. We can’t just brush that part of our history under the rug.”

Idiots and ratbags
On the other side of the argument, Senator Pauline Hanson, leader of the conservative One Nation party, criticized the MLA advertisement for failing to mention Australia Day or show the national flag. “It really is pretty sad, isn’t it?” Hanson told local media. “It’s [the] bloody idiots out there; ratbags. It’s pretty sad when it’s basically shutting us down for being proud of who we are as Australian citizens.”

MLA’s group marketing manager, Andrew Howie, said that considerable research and development work had gone into making the lamb commercial, including consultations with a range of interest groups.

“We consulted closely with Reconciliation Australia, we worked closely with the indigenous actors who are in the campaign, and we worked to include cultural sensitivities in the aim of creating a campaign that hopefully felt as inclusive as possible,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review.

“The message behind the campaign this year deliberately says: ‘We live in the most amazing country in the world, why should we restrict our celebration of that to merely one day?’ It’s nothing more or less than that.”

Reconciliation Australia is a not-for-profit group that campaigns for better relations between indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the descendants of later immigrant groups.

The contrasting advertisements, both intended to make viewers laugh, represent the lighter side of a bitter debate on the date of Australia Day. The date was established as a public holiday​ in 1994, when Australia’s states and territories agreed on a uniform celebration of the founding of the nation.

In more recent times, January 26 has come to be known as “invasion day” among some indigenous Australians. When Mick Dodson, an indigenous elder, was named Australian of the Year by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009, he used the moments after his official speech to argue that Australia Day should be moved to another date.

Dodson told reporters that January 26 was a day of mourning for many indigenous Australians. It was “the day on which our world came crashing down.”

Famed Australian Football player and indigenous Australian Adam Goodes, who was named “Australian of the Year” in 2014, told local media that for him, the celebration of Australia Day echoed with “the sadness and mourning and the sorrow of our people, and a culture that unfortunately has been lost to me through generations.”

These views remain controversial, but there is some support among the wider community. For example, the city of Fremantle, in Western Australia, has moved its Australia Day celebrations to January 28. The city government noted on its website that the later date was “more culturally inclusive and more in line with Fremantle’s values.” However, it added, Fremantle was not wedded to January 28 for future Australia Day celebrations.