28 January 2019

How could we solve the Australia Day argument?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Arabunna elder Reginald Dodd is the SA Senior Australian of the Year. Photo: D Jukic.

The debate about when we mark Australia Day is increasingly characterised by resentment, anger and misunderstanding on all sides. It’s not surprising. January 26, 1788 was a major transition point in our national history. But should the date mark the birth of modern Australia, the day the invasion began, or something more complicated somewhere in the middle?

Amid all the Australia Day hoopla, a much smaller and quieter event is tucked into the calendar. On Friday morning, early, I sat with people from Lake Eyre and Arnhem Land, from Darwin and Melbourne at a Reconciliation Australia breakfast. Among them were the eight indigenous Australian of the Year nominees.

Reginald Dodd from Arabunna country in South Australia, who worked his way through native title legislation with the help of a Roget’s Thesaurus and co-authored a law course with RMIT was there. Maningrida-born Danzal Baker, or Baker Boy, whose rap music brought Yolgnu Matha language to a national audience. And AFL legend Michael Long, whose Long Walk from Melbourne to Canberra dramatised the reality of racism and the need for action.

These are outstanding, hardworking Australians. And many Aboriginal people like them are not at all happy about Australia Day and the way we now celebrate it in a flag-waving, lamb-barbecuing, green-and-gold frenzy of patriotism. Aboriginal Australians have strong reasons for feeling that when the white sails loomed over the horizon in 1788, two centuries of dispossession, pain, disease and death also began.

I don’t recall Australia Day being such a big deal 40 years ago or more (the Australian flag’s design wasn’t even finally settled until 1953). I am very wary of throwing a cloak of unquestioning nationalistic fervour over every question about our identity and labelling dissenters as un-Australian. That’s childish, jingoistic nonsense. For a large chunk of our colonial history, many thought of themselves as citizens of the Empire first and foremost, not Australians.

But, but, but…..what other date is there? Isn’t it indisputable that the Australia we know now also began on January 26? That there’s no going back from that first permanent European settlement and everything, good and bad, that flowed from it?

So is there a third way, a middle course? Instead of expecting Aboriginal Australians to simply fall in and celebrate the 26th, I wonder whether we should begin instead on January 25 with a national twilight ceremony that recognises the deep significance of Aboriginal culture.

Such a ceremony would be attended by the national leaders, but led by the Aboriginal community. In celebrating indigenous Australia, it would also focus on the reality of dispossession and the resilience of survival. We would begin our national holiday with a more profound examination of our history than re-enacting the First Fleet’s arrival.

In 2018, I was co-chair, with former ACT politician and Gamilaroi man Chris Bourke, of the advisory committee for the ACT’s inaugural Reconciliation Day public holiday. We learned a lot.

The biggest lesson for me personally was understanding that some Australians are deeply invested in reconciliation, and some are opposed to the process. In the middle, there are vast numbers of ordinary Australians who haven’t really thought about it. They don’t know any Aboriginal people, aren’t connected with reconciliation and may feel uncomfortable or poorly informed.

Our ACT holiday gave many people the chance to have those conversations in their families, with their friends and communities. A national ceremony of recognition might achieve the same goal.

I believe we urgently need a way to open up the reconciliation conversation for all Australians. It’s not up to Aboriginal Australia to take responsibility for it. We’re all in this together because we are all Australians. Can we all grow up enough to mark our national day with sensitivity, nuance and good will? Surely, there is a way to make that happen?

What changes do you think we need to make to Australia Day?


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Deputy Commissioner Commissioner5:39 am 02 Feb 19

If it is a simple date mistake which it is, then change the buckskin bloody thing. It is not going to give racists any higher pedestals to stand on which should be a good thing, get over it.

Australia day is a notional date that is taken to represent when ‘Australia’ was formed. Its got nothing to do with Indigenous culture, other than the obvious slight that the benefit of ‘Australia’ was at the detriment of their own sovereignty.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then but its become clear that the politics of division are still rampant – those who wish to divide Australians are doing it on the basis of these historical events.

Change the date if we must, but its time that we start all getting on the same bandwagon and proceed as Australians, not Indigenous Australians and the Rest of Australians.

At 30 June 2015, nearly 30% of Australians were born overseas. That’s 1/3 of our country who don’t even have skin in the game.

We can solve the issue by realising that nothing will appease the whiners and professional victims, and we just ignore them.

Australia day is on the 26th of January. That is where it should remain. The world was formed around conquest and settlement. Get over it. Think it lucky the place wasn’t discovered and settled by the Spanish or Portugese. Ask the Inca and Mayans how that would have worked… Oh, wait, you can’t because they were enslaved and basically exterminated.

This is how it is. Quit your whining and expecting nonsensical, pointless treaties and date moves, and concentrate on doing things to actually improve your life. Moving Australia day won’t change the past. Deal with it.

Blen Carmichual … and others… are right in saying it won’t matter what day Australia Day is gazetted, activists will continue to target it. Perhaps after here they could do some invader targeting elsewhere.
Perhaps Alaska, Canada, the US and then Mexico. Then move south ( for the winter ). There’s a host of settled / invaded countries you can demonstrate in. Lots of small joints . And then Panama, there you could have a squiz at the canal.

Then onto the bigger invaded countries like Columbia, Venezuela, and one we all know through our Senator Kate Gallagher , Ecuador. Then Brazil and Chile and Argentina and a few others. Peru would need a protest, then you could wander off to look at Machu Picchu.

Then slip across to Cuba to protest, but I’m thinkin’ probably best not to. And another place not to protest too much would be the invasion by the slaves against the Carib Indians in what we call the Caribbean. The slaves were of course in shackles and chains
( sound familiar ) and I would suggest if you were to call one of there ancestors today an invader, you might find a cricket bat lodged in a painful place. Happy travels.

A suitable date would be the date Australia becomes a republic if a successful referendum can be achieved. This date, say in September, (no other conflicting public holidays and the start of spring being symbolic) shouldn’t have too many objections from either side of politics. It would be a no-brainer to move Australia Day to the day we become a republic – the sooner the better.

Capital Retro10:59 am 01 Feb 19

So, if the republic is introduced on 26th January everyone will be happy?

Blen_Carmichael2:00 pm 29 Jan 19

I’m surprised so many people think a mere changing of the date is the answer. If it were as simple as that I’d be in favour. The reality is this is just one more demand in a string of grievances by activists, some of whom include indigenous people. Their aim is not to bring about reconciliation but to perpetuate white guilt. Misery means money and status for the professional victim.

Blen, who actually said that a “mere changing of the date is the answer”? I haven’t hear anyone say that so would appreciate if you could supply a quote. Otherwise, this may be just something you are reading into the situation without anything to back up your argument.

First, ask the Aboriginal people what they want.

Second, listen to their answers rather than trying to reframe heir words into your cultural context.

Third, accept that there is no single opinion because each group has their own experience to share.

White people talking to white people is only going to produce answers that white people are comfortable with.

As for what the Aborigines want, check out the Uluru Statement From the Heart. It’s only a couple of pages, easy to read in your tea break. Understanding it will take longer, possibly a lifetime.

Inequality and disadvantage certainly exists, regardless of the date. Go right ahead and change the date – but unfortunately these problems are not going to be solved any time soon.

PS. I saw several people on social media saying they would not be celebrating Australia Day. Interested to know how you didn’t celebrate? I had a nice day at home, just like any other public holiday, so not sure whether I celebrated or not??

Capital Retro8:25 am 29 Jan 19

Margaret Freemantle suggests that full-bloods were “slaughtered in their thousands”.
This only happened before the British established colonies here.

Capital Retro6:45 pm 28 Jan 19

Historians have really bungled naming the 26th January as Australia Day as the credit for naming the colony as New South Wales by Cook in 1770 was still recognised by Phillip when he arrived with the first fleet at Botany Bay in 1788.

It was not until some 20 years later when Flinders mapped the continent generally known as New Holland that he (Flinders) recommended it be re-named Australia.

As well as the “Change the Date” calls, I see there seems to be increasing (or perhaps just more media attention to) calls to abolish the whole idea of Australia Day.

It seems clear that no date that has any connection to white culture will be acceptable.

And what are we supposed to think of the “Always was Aboriginal Land. Always will be Aboriginal Land” activists? They seem to want all land handed back to them.

That will not happen.

Thus we have to draw a line somewhere.

Leave Australia Day where it is and create an Indigenous day.

This seems like a willful misunderstanding of the discourse.

It’s not that “no date that has any connection to white culture will be acceptable”, it’s that celebrating the European settlement is actively disregarding the impact that action had on the Indigenous population, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. White people need to recognise that in celebrating this particular day, they are also celebrating the pain, crimes and actions that resulted from it.

The “Always was, always will be Aboriginal land” phrase is an acknowledgement of the civilisation in this country that predated any European settlement. Aboriginal culture is the longest continuous and surviving culture in the history of humanity.

I am a white Australian. My family was brought out as convicts. I am ashamed of Australia’s colonial past and I am truly sorry to the Indigenous population for the hurts they have suffered. I can’t knowingly celebrate January 26 in the same way that I cannot celebrate April 25. Pain, even pain which I have not experienced, does not feel like something worth celebrating.

It doesn’t matter what changes are made. The victim industry is in full swing and would never be happy regardless of what was done.

Capital Retro8:36 am 29 Jan 19

Both “invasion day” and “reconciliation” have become victim industries.
I now wonder who really initiated this divisive concepts.

During my life I have had a lot on contact with aboriginal people in work, sport and simply friendships. Not once was this concept of “invasion” mentioned or discussed and neither was the equally fanciful notion that there were “frontier wars” .

So because indigenous people who you have met did not raise the issue of invasion that means it didn’t happen? I don’t think so. The fact that there are still some people who think that this country was not invaded indicates we still have a way to go in facing up to history. It doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty, however to deny there was an invasion is patently ridiculous.

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