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Australia Day: Festival or Funeral?

By John Hargreaves 11 January 2016 37

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I took out Aussie citizenship when I was 20. Up till then it hadn’t occurred to me that there was any benefit to being a fully-fledged citizen when I could get all the benefits as a British subject, having been born in England and migrating out to Oz when I was three years old. I knew nothing British and was, for all intents, an Aussie.

So Aussie was I that my birthday was put in the National Service lottery. So you can see that as a young man, I didn’t think about it much. Well, my number didn’t come out of the barrel but full of patriotism and propaganda, I enlisted in the Army for the National Service of two years.

When I was posted to a field force unit, preparing to go to Vietnam, I thought well, I should really be an Australian citizen if I’m going to wear the uniform and fight for the country, so I applied. Luckily, the unit didn’t go overseas and I was spared the horror of Vietnam.

Then one day, a large envelope appeared in the mail. It contained my citizenship certificate and a form letter of congrats. A bit anti-climactic, if you ask me.

Fast forward to when I was minister for Multicultural Affairs and given the honour of bestowing Australian citizenship on people who had elected to become Aussies. (This was by far the best perk I ever had as a pollie.)

I saw the lights in the eyes of people who had newly arrived: some were refugees and successful asylum seekers; some had been here for decades and finally made the plunge; whole families from every part of the globe. It was amazing to see the raw pleasure in their eyes.

I welcomed them as part of our Aussie family and saw that this was for them one of the signature celebrations and ceremonies in their lives. It ranked for many up there with weddings, baptisms, christenings, bar mitzvahs, and significant birthdays and was only second to births of babies.

Everyone had a wonderful time and most of them partied on afterwards. Contrast that with my notification in the mail!

I told them to be proud of their heritage; not to lose that heritage, the language, the colour, the cuisine, the music and their very essence. I told them that Australia was enriched by the blending of cultures; that it is a welcoming country for anyone who wants to be an honest and hardworking part of our community and they pledged loyalty to Australia.

When I went home I was filled with joy, with that sweet feeling of patriotism and connectedness with my country, the country of my choice and not of my birth.

Then I ran into some of my Indigenous friends.

They weren’t celebrating at all. They were in mourning.  They were mourning a lost world, a lost culture, a lost generation, a lost sense of connection with the land, a loss of proprietary ownership in the land of their ancestors.

They were remembering the stories of dispossession, of theft of kids, of disease and despair. They were remembering stories of struggle with white man’s plagues of alcohol, diet and disease. They were mourning the cleansing of their race.

What a juxtaposition we have created by having Australia Day on the anniversary of the arrival of the very people who until mid-last century didn’t think of our first peoples as people at all. Any scratch of history in this country, despite its denial by significant Australians, will reveal the race wars of the 19th century, the annihilation of the first peoples in Tasmania, the ridding of the first peoples in New South Wales and Queensland and the treatment of all Indigenous people in all states and territories ever since, culminating with the Stolen Generations and the Black Deaths in Custody reports.

I’m not going to go into a duel of stats at 50 paces; I’m not going to enter into debate on whether Australia is the better for its development since 1788; I’m not going to debate the issues of dispossessing and theft; and, I’m not going to spar on the attempts by some to do hideous things to Indigenous people in the name of rescuing them.

I just want people to stop and think for a minute on whether it is appropriate to celebrate when someone is in mourning.

How would we like it if someone decided to have an engagement party at Norwood Park when we were farewelling a beloved relative? How would we like it if someone had a birthday party at Gungahlin Cemetery when we were visiting the grave of a child?

My own level of emotional confusion gave me cause to think each and every Australia Day.

I want to celebrate being an Aussie; I want to share in the joy of others who have chosen Australia as their home, as their sanctuary; I want to share in the notion of patriotism and I want to have a happy time on Australia Day.

I also want to acknowledge that it was my British people that conquered this land; I want to apologise to the First Peoples for the theft of kids in the Stolen Generation; I want to apologise for the disproportion of Indigenous kids in juvenile detention and disproportionate representation in adult corrections institutions; I want to apologise for the state of Indigenous health and education; I want to seek their forgiveness for the world we force them to live in and I want to seek their forgiveness sometimes just for me being here at all.

But I also want to know more about my fellow Australian citizens, the first peoples; I want to know their stories, their songs, their rituals (if they are comfortable with that); I want to know what makes them smile and laugh; and what they see as important in their lives.

I have asked the many migrant families who received citizenship from me (on behalf of the Commonwealth Government) those very same things. And once a year they all come together in the National Multicultural Festival and answer my very questions.

How about a real First Peoples’ Day in its own right? How about we ask the Indigenous people of Australia, disparate as they are, when would be a good time? NAIDOC is a good start.  How about we white guys start thinking of NAIDOC in the same way as Australia Day? And how about moving the Australia Day away from the anniversary of the invasion?

What’s Your opinion?


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37 Responses to
Australia Day: Festival or Funeral?
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rommeldog56 8:00 pm 13 Jan 16

John Hargreaves said :

why can’t we celebrate all things Australian without the need to associate it with the taking of lands and cultures form those people who were here first?

Your own words in your OP John :

“And how about moving the Australia Day away from the anniversary of the invasion,”

i for one look forward to the day, post the newly expanded number of MLAs, that discussion groups such as this are populated with even more ex MLAs with that sort of arguing against themselves !

Like ex PMs, perhaps some ex ACT MLAs should be seen, but not heard.

Masquara 6:49 pm 13 Jan 16

John, you can chill out and cut the indignation! Yabun Festival in Sydney on Australia Day is sponsored by Koori Radio. There’s also the Wugulora ceremony. Jess Mauboy is performing. Indigenous Australians are leaving the bad stuff behind and embracing Australia Day. You don’t really have a place speaking for them or expressing outrage that is not being expressed by mainstream Indigenous Australia. Sure, there are fringe complaints, but please don’t put about the disinformation that they speak for the majority of Aboriginal Australians! And I was surprised to read you describing the First Fleeters as “criminals” – weren’t many of then transported simply for being poor and Irish, and possibly stealing a loaf of bread? Hardly “criminals”!

rubaiyat 5:21 pm 13 Jan 16

John Hargreaves said :

HenryBG said :

John Hargreaves said :

You show a denial that we have displaced the original peoples here, and that we dispossessed them.

I have no idea who might have been “original” and who dispossessed them, but I do know we have here one of the finest and fairest nations on the planet and we should all be attempting to do our best to make it even better, not making up defective myths designed to drag it down through division.

Whoever these “originals” might have been are clearly long-dead, and they certainly did not benefit from one of the planet’s leading systems of government, free education and free healthcare.

We should all be thinking ourselves very lucky for being citizens of Australia.

I agree with all you say except that I don’t see why we can’t acknowledge that we were not the first people here, we have imposed our systems on those who were, and we celebrate that fact on the day that the British colonised a spot later called NSW with criminals.

why can’t we celebrate all things Australian without the need to associate it with the taking of lands and cultures form those people who were here first?

We trashed both their country and their healthy lifestyle.

Flinders commented that the Aborigines he encountered near Albany in WA were tall healthy and disdainful of these scabrous ill-fed European boat people living off their naval rations.

But we had the guns, diseases and grog, and soon put an end to that nonsense!

dungfungus 2:30 pm 13 Jan 16

rubaiyat said :

dungfungus said :

It is totally mischievous of you to say Australia was invaded also. If it was there would have been a flotilla of warships and soldiers accompanying the first fleet and history (which could be changed if we let it) doesn’t reflect this was the case.

Really?

Eleven naval ships and all those red coats and you somehow missed them?

Yet more “sceptic”? Seems more like “Not looking! Don’t want to know!”

Ships with convicts, not cannonballs.

HenryBG 1:59 pm 13 Jan 16

John Hargreaves said :

… I don’t see why we can’t acknowledge that we were not the first people here, …

And I still don’t see why you want to create division in this way.

Do we call people of anglo-celtic background, “second peoples”? The post-war migrants from Greece “third peoples”? The vietnamese migration in the 70s “fourth peoples”?

Why do we need to “acknowledge” something none of us was present for, none of was a victim of, and none of us was responsible for?

As far as I am concerned, I don’t see any benefit in trumpeting the fact I was here “first”, as compared to anybody born after me, or who immigrated later than me. It’s at minimum a completely non-constructive regression to the idea of birthright into a non-merit-based class system, if it isn’t downright racist.

If we want to “acknowledge” something, let’s acknowledge the things that have added up to give us one of the world’s leading societies – Magna Carta, Universal Suffrage, a legal system that asserts the notion of equal rights, governance supplying socialised medicine and education, the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the collapse of Communist Russia?

SunRider 11:47 am 13 Jan 16

dungfungus said :

SunRider said :

You people are talking as though the exploitation, poverty and disadvantage of Australian Indigenous people is a thing of the distant past. It is not. There is plenty to mourn. Before you protest, do yourself a favour and visit a remote Indigenous community. If it doesn’t make you physically ill and change your view of Australia, then maybe there is more to mourn than I thought.

Successive governments have thrown billions of dollars at the perceived poverty and disadvantage of Australian indigenous people but the squalor of the people in some remote communities remains.
The outcome in the public arena is that all of the problems faced by Aboriginal communities are the governments’ fault and it is the governments’ responsibility to fix it.
Individual responsibility is never mentioned – it’s easier to blame the government.
As I understand it and as Noel Pearson once suggested, the people “affected” should move to the cities. It’s time for some “tough love”.
What is your suggestion besides mourning and trying to feel ashamed to be an Australian?

Dungfungas, I’m not sure how you deduced that I am trying to feel ashamed of being Australian. I am not, and try as they might, no one will ever make me feel ashamed of being Aboriginal either. I truly wish I had solutions, but perhaps a less divisive date for Australia day would be a start.

As for the billions of dollars thrown at Indigenous communities, well, there are plenty of very well paid government officials riding around in pimped out Toyota Landcruisers in those communities, not much in the way of infrastructure though, (think internet, basic phone coverage, garbage collection etc). To suggest that people should move to more populous regions to improve their situation betrays a lack of understanding or respect of connection to country and cultural responsibilities. Moreover, many don’t speak English or have any kind of capital reserves to effect such a move. Couple these challenges with lack of family or social support and it starts to look like a recipe for poverty and social exclusion to me.

John Hargreaves 11:34 am 13 Jan 16

HenryBG said :

John Hargreaves said :

You show a denial that we have displaced the original peoples here, and that we dispossessed them.

I have no idea who might have been “original” and who dispossessed them, but I do know we have here one of the finest and fairest nations on the planet and we should all be attempting to do our best to make it even better, not making up defective myths designed to drag it down through division.

Whoever these “originals” might have been are clearly long-dead, and they certainly did not benefit from one of the planet’s leading systems of government, free education and free healthcare.

We should all be thinking ourselves very lucky for being citizens of Australia.

I agree with all you say except that I don’t see why we can’t acknowledge that we were not the first people here, we have imposed our systems on those who were, and we celebrate that fact on the day that the British colonised a spot later called NSW with criminals.

why can’t we celebrate all things Australian without the need to associate it with the taking of lands and cultures form those people who were here first?

TuggLife 9:44 am 13 Jan 16

Vix said :

I doubt the Aborigines in Perth had much to do with the Aborigines in Sydney such that perhaps the ‘invasion’ occurred at different times in different places… perhaps Australia Day should be shifted to the date of the Federation – the day we all became Australians?

Federation still has overtones of white settlement. At the time of writing the Constitution and the start of Federation, Aboriginal people were actively being discriminated against, and, in parts of the country, massacred. The Federation of the colonies simply reinforced the myth of terra nullius, and the Constitution explicitly states “in reckoning the numbers of people… Aboriginal natives shall not be counted”, so perhaps not the best choice.

Perhaps we should just shift it to Steve Irwin’s birthday – 22 February. I could do with a holiday about then.

rubaiyat 8:15 am 13 Jan 16

dungfungus said :

It is totally mischievous of you to say Australia was invaded also. If it was there would have been a flotilla of warships and soldiers accompanying the first fleet and history (which could be changed if we let it) doesn’t reflect this was the case.

Really?

Eleven naval ships and all those red coats and you somehow missed them?

Yet more “sceptic”? Seems more like “Not looking! Don’t want to know!”

rubaiyat 8:12 am 13 Jan 16

Ahhh…. National White Boat People’s Day.

Sadly we won’t have Abbott to officiate this year.

I agree John, we should live up to our noble rhetoric and not down to our baser hypocrisy.

Vix 1:08 am 13 Jan 16

I doubt the Aborigines in Perth had much to do with the Aborigines in Sydney such that perhaps the ‘invasion’ occurred at different times in different places… perhaps Australia Day should be shifted to the date of the Federation – the day we all became Australians?

HenryBG 9:24 pm 12 Jan 16

John Hargreaves said :

You show a denial that we have displaced the original peoples here, and that we dispossessed them.

I have no idea who might have been “original” and who dispossessed them, but I do know we have here one of the finest and fairest nations on the planet and we should all be attempting to do our best to make it even better, not making up defective myths designed to drag it down through division.

Whoever these “originals” might have been are clearly long-dead, and they certainly did not benefit from one of the planet’s leading systems of government, free education and free healthcare.

We should all be thinking ourselves very lucky for being citizens of Australia.

John Hargreaves 6:39 pm 12 Jan 16

dungfungus said :

John Hargreaves said :

HenryBG said :

“I just want people to stop and think for a minute on whether it is appropriate to celebrate when someone is in mourning.”

Right on.
We need to ensure all deaths are properly scheduled so as to not co-incide with anybody’s birthday, wedding, or work farewell party.

It’s just insensitive.

As for the other stuff: we all have ancestors whose primitive cultures were blown away by human advancement (and invasions). We need to get over it and stop encouraging people to wallow in deceptive nostalgia that does nothing except impede personal achievement. We are all Australians, and we all benefit from a society that provides education, healthcare and civilised governance, paid for by those who make a success of their lives. If more of us concentrate on achieving better success, we will all benefit from better-funded education, etc…

Good point, so long as history is not written by the latter day victors. The black arm brigade should hang their heads in shame. We just need to acknowledge the past and get on with the future in an embracing way not a denial way.

John, who would you class as the “victors”?
Surely not the descendants of the British who fought in the (phoney) “frontier wars” which is the latest sophistry thought up by the un-reconciliation industry.
Also, what is being “denied”?
You can’t have two bob each way on this issue.

The victors were indeed the British and their successors here. The wars were not phoney. Check Qld and NSW history. You show a denial that we have displaced the original peoples here, and that we dispossessed them.

TuggLife 4:36 pm 12 Jan 16

trickster said :

I think any reasonable person should be able to see that Australia day as it’s currently celebrated is not the inclusive and unifying day it should be. Firstly, if indigenous Australians don’t think it’s appropriate, then it’s not. Secondly, I don’t feel like celebrating the founding of New South Wales anyway.

+1

Thanks, John – this is very well written. It is indeed a complex issue and one that I struggle to fully appreciate from my white, middle-class background, and I commend you for considering both sides of the issue. Trickster has summed it up well in their comment.

There are some good contributions already to this discussion, but I think, in general, when commenting on matters of Indigenous affairs, it’s helpful to refer to this article from The Shovel: ‘We’ll Decide When We’re Being Racist, White People Tell Black People’ – http://www.theshovel.com.au/2015/07/30/well-decide-when-were-being-racist-white-people-tell-black-people/

watto23 2:14 pm 12 Jan 16

To be honest and while its not what the indigenous people would want to here, the reality is present day Australia is essentially what Australia Day represents. I know its not exactly the most pleasant day in terms of indigenous Australians, but its the day that fits best for Australia as it is now.

What needs to be done is more acknowledgement of indigenous Australians and how it negatively affect them. Much like Anzac day is solemn, there should be a period on Australia day as a show of respect. Maybe a minutes silence also. the day should be celebrated and also treated for what it actually represents. the right wing extremists can also but out, because they don’t represent the majority of Australians either, certainly not me who was born here from Australian descendants as far back as the 1840’s, so I’m pretty Aussie and this integration crap has no place in this country.

Get rid of the divisive rubbish and celebrate and mourn the day equally.

Postalgeek 11:44 am 12 Jan 16

dungfungus said :

So, Australia was invaded by convicts?
Give me a break!

I’m not endorsing the word ‘invasion’. I’m saying if you’re going to use the word ‘invasion’ there are a couple of things to consider. Now go have your break. It looks like you need one.

mattapalooza 10:49 am 12 Jan 16

Fair call.

Although my family came out here as a result of the first fleet – so we didn’t really have a choice. I celebrate Australia Day because they overcame massive challenges and made this country our own. I’m a proud Australian and I’m sick of being told I can’t celebrate my family arriving here.

Here’s a plan – if you allow me to go back to the UK and claim the land where my family was originally from, I’ll listen to you. The British won’t allow me to have a passport to travel to live in the land of my ancestors despite the fact I now exist here as a result of their ruling’s…

I live here. Stop making me feel like I’m doing something wrong by celebrating that.

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