Australia Day only became a truly national holiday in 1947 and it wasn’t until 1994 that all the States and Territories agreed that the holiday should fall on 26 January, rather than the following Monday. In my youth, Australia Day used to be a pretty tame affair, mainly taken up with naturalisation ceremonies, flag-raising and speeches. There was the odd re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet at Port Jackson and, of course, there was a public holiday. But I don’t remember lamb being on the menu.
Lamb for Australia Day may have some historical precedent, however. The first official celebration of January 26 took place in 1818, the 30th anniversary of the First Fleet’s landing at Port Jackson. It wasn’t called Australia Day at that point, but Anniversary Day. To mark the occasion, Governor Macquarie gave government workers a holiday and an extra allowance of “one pound of fresh meat”. Chances are that meat was mutton (not quite lamb, but the same animal).
As the years rolled by, the anniversary became known as Foundation Day. While it continued to be celebrated in New South Wales, the other states had their own commemorations, often at completely different times of the year. There’s little record of any culinary traditions, with more formal ceremonies marking these occasions.
What created the Australia Day lamb tradition was not history, but advertising. Sam Kekovich’s first rant, in 2005, set the tone. It resulted in vegetarians complaining to the Advertising Standards Board, offended that Sam had slammed the non-meat eaters claiming that the Anzacs “weren’t fighting for tofu sausages”. The complaints were dismissed.
For a number of years afterwards, Sam produced more outrageous Australia Day addresses to the nation and, every year, lamb sales skyrocketed. Butchers claimed that in the week prior to Australia Day they sold around 30% more lamb than usual. Australians, it seems, agreed with Mr Kekovich that the barbecued lamb chop embodies “the egalitarian values that made Australia great”.