The multimillion dollar ad campaign, launched this month, features 20 participants from multicultural backgrounds reading a poem that describes the country’s past as painful, raw and beautiful.
It departs from previous campaigns by focusing on the “highs and lows” of Australia’s past, with particular emphasis on Indigenous history.
National Australia Day Council chief executive Karlie Brand told the Herald and The Age the campaign, which was created over two years, deliberately did not choose “one story” to be presented as the story of Australia. It has so far attracted a mostly positive reception from conservative commentators to Aboriginal land council representatives.
“[The campaign] includes a very important acknowledgement of pre-colonial history and identifies that the link between all of us, no matter when we came here, is we enjoy the same freedoms and respect the rights of others to have different views, including on Australia Day itself,” Ms Brand said.
In designing this year’s ad the council faced a growing community push to change the date of the national holiday, which is considered a day of mourning for some Indigenous Australians and challenged by annual protests. Some councils have cancelled their official celebrations. But the council has no power to change the date and “definitely supports Australia Day being on January 26”, Ms Brand said.
“It’s important to acknowledge that the date is difficult. That comes in the ‘reflect’ and the ‘respect’. To borrow a line [from the poem] – we all have our views. It’s an opportunity to understand more about our history and why that might be the case for some people.”
Mr Widders agrees, although he supports Aboriginal people referring to the day as Survival Day or Invasion Day. “I think we need to have a day where we look at what is it that makes us uniquely Australian,” he said.
‘Anything is possible’ for migrants to Australia
For Rania Awad, 42, who features in the campaign alongside her wife and young daughter, “part of the appeal of Australia in my eyes was anything is possible”.
Ms Awad migrated to Melbourne from Lebanon when she was 11, and went on to open one of the country’s first online pharmacies.
Rania Awad, who migrated to Australia from Lebanon when she was 11, joined the Australia campaign to inspire young girls like herself.
“When I arrived in Australia, I still recall thinking: ‘This is the first night of my life that I’ll get to sleep without having to hear the sounds of bombs and bullets’,” she said.
She took part in the Australia Day campaign to “shine a light” for people in a similar situation to herself. “[It will be worth it] if one small girl feels they don’t have to live a restricted life according to scripture,” she said.
Ten years ago Ms Awad thought she would be hiding her sexuality for most of her life. But then she found the “love of [her] life”. “I started coming out to more and more people. I started seeing people were very accepting, very open and very loving,” she said.
Sydney chef and campaign participant Stevenson Su also credits Australia with encouraging him to be open, talk more and show greater empathy and bravery. He arrived from China in 2011, where he first started his career as an apprentice chef at 12-years-old.
He is now raising a family in suburban Sydney and says his two young children teach him more about the country and its education system each day.
But he’s passionate about “keeping tradition” which he does as executive chef of Canley Vale eatery District 8, serving a range of Asian cuisines to a diverse local clientele daily.
“We don’t want our next generation to forget where we come from, or our language or Chinese community,” he said. “Everything is possible [in Australia] if you’re willing to do it.”
Conservative commentator Kevin Donnelly dismissed the new campaign as “wishy-washy multiculturalism” that ignores Australia’s European identity in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, while Sky host Chris Kenny said he “loved” the ad for reflecting the “inclusive, respectful, diverse, proud and honest” nation.
Chief executive of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Nathan Moran, said “this could be the most inclusive Australia Day ad campaign we’ve ever seen”.
“I’m very aware of Australia’s use of comedy to deal with truth. But I suggest that as a First Nations Australia, what occurred on the January 26 is not something that should be trivialised,” Mr Moran said.
He praised the ad for showcasing a variety of viewpoints. “Different people have different experiences based on their perspectives of the day,” he said.
Natassia is the education reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Janek Drevikovsky is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.