Today is the 20th anniversary of the declaration of ‘National Wattle Day’, writes Dr Glenn Davies, an appropriate time to commit ourselves afresh to caring for this land.
Australians may have made a home for themselves amongst the gumtrees, but it is the wattle tree that has found its way into Australian symbolism. Most Australians can recognise a wattle – at least when it is in flower.
September 1 has many names. Some welcome it as spring’s dawn, a time to celebrate nature’s renewal. For others it is Wattle Day. It is a time when the smells of spring are in the air and the vivid gold of the blossom is literally arresting. Wattle Day is celebrated annually on the first day of spring when a sprig of Australia’s official national floral emblem, the Golden Wattle, Acacia pycnantha is traditionally worn. The green and gold of its leaves and blossoms were declared national colours in 1984 and in 1988 the wattle was adopted as the official national flower. The 1st of September 1992 was formally declared as ‘National Wattle Day’ by then Minister for the Environment, Ros Kelly, and in 1993, the Australian Republican Movement gave its support to Wattle Day celebrations throughout Australia on 1 September.
Wattle blossoms are to be found on the Australian Coat of Arms and the Order of Australia is in the shape of a single wattle blossom. Australian Olympic athletes wear wattle inspired green and gold uniforms. A Governor General, Sir William Deane, took wattle blossoms to Switzerland to commemorate young Australians who died there and Prime Minister John Howard wore sprigs of wattle at ceremonies after the Bali bombings.
2012 is also the centenary of then Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher’s efforts to ‘Australianise’ our government system and national symbols. Fisher took a keen interest in the complex question of national identity. Home-grown symbols, he knew in his heart, were essential for a nation so young. The fragile cultural fabric needed connections, some stitching, and some leadership. Among other initiatives, such as the introduction of the Australian penny in 1911, Fisher had the Australian Coat of Arms (designed by the College of Arms in England) remodelled to give it a more Australian flavour by having wattle included as the decoration surrounding the Coat of Arms.
Australian Republican Movement (ACT) convenor Justin Ryan recently wrote to the ACT Chief Minister about pushing for a redesign of the ACT’s coat of arms, saying it was out of date. The design features a castle, swords, crowns, two swans and the motto ‘for the Queen, the law and the people’.
In making his submission, he said:
“Now we have a much stronger identity and I think the Centenary year next year is a really good opportunity for us to look at our symbols, and look at our identity, and see what we can do to update it.”
An obvious update would be to add some wattle.
Wattle celebrations first arose as occasions when earlier generations of Australians stood up and said: “I am from this land. This place is home”. Like the Southern Cross, the appeal of the wattle is not first and foremost to the idea of the nation – but to the idea of place.
Because there is no better symbol of our land than wattle, ‘National Wattle Day’ each year could be the day Australians recommit to the care of the land. Perhaps ‘National Wattle Day’ could become our land’s birthday. This is the time each year when the landscape waves its golden flag, and in response, many Australians resolve to both respect and care for the land.
Wattle is a broad and inclusive symbol. It grows in all parts of Australia, differing varieties flowering throughout the year. It links all Australians, from the first to the newest at citizenship ceremonies. It touches all levels of society, from very early pioneers and World War 1 diggers (buried with a customary sprig of wattle) to victims of the Bali bombings and the nation’s best who are honoured with Order of Australia awards with insignia designed around the wattle flower.
The wattle flower symbolises an egalitarian, classless, free citizenry.
The democracy of wattles – the fact that they grow in all states – was the overpowering reason why the wattle and not the waratah was chosen as the floral emblem in the early twentieth century. In September 1981, historian Manning Clark wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“I love the spring. It means the wattle comes out again. It is a symbol of everything one loves about Australia and the ideal of the uniqueness of Australia. To me every spring holds out the hope that it won’t be long before Australia is completely independent [but I also] share Henry Lawson’s view that blood should never stain the wattle.”
In other words, independence of course, but peacefully achieved.
Independent Australia believes in a fully and truly independent Australia, a nation that determines its own future, a nation that protects its citizens, its environment and its future. A country that is fair and free. So, when the blaze of wattle lights up the Australian landscape each year, let’s all remember that the wattle is a symbol of our land that unites us all.
‘National Wattle Day’ on 1 September each year is an appropriate time to commit ourselves afresh to caring for this land.