It is regrettable that anything approaching public argument over such a fundamental acknowledgement of Indigenous history and presence could possibly still be smouldering in 2018. Regrettable but perhaps not surprising, given the recent rhetorical contortions of opponents, from the prime minister down, to re-thinking Australia Day … And, of course, if the simplest reform, in this case involving a flag, can’t be implemented without triggering cultural outrage, what hope for the many matters of national Indigenous emergency?
Update 29 January 2018: Leanne Smith, new Director of the Whitlam Institute, in Pearls and Irritations:
As we descend into the perennial unproductive quarrel about the 26th of January, that optimism [of 20 years ago, when recognition and reconciliation was a high priority] has faded, and I think we’re missing the more important question. The date of Australia’s national day is a less significant and more divisive issue than the broader question of our shared national identity. Who are we as a people, what do we stand for, and where we are going?
To argue, as did citizenship and multicultural affairs minister Alan Tudge last week, that the day is “a great unifying moment for this country”, let alone to imply that it is somehow a sacred part of our tradition, is absurd …
[W]hile the date of our national day is only one small element in dealing with the past, it is hard to see how reconciliation can be advanced if we continue to assert that 26 January is a great unifying moment or fail to acknowledge that the benefits bestowed by Western civilisation came at a very high cost for the original inhabitants.
Australia Day is, the National Australia Day Council declares, “for all Australians, no matter where our personal stories began”. Delve into what that means and things get complicated. Historians can help shape the conversation about our national day by explaining that complexity, especially when they bring life and colour to the legal intricacies that have moulded Australia.
Current debates around Australia Day are dominated by three themes. The first is a call for the day to be moved to a date that is less offensive to Indigenous people than that which marks the commencement of a history of attempted dispossession and genocide. A second position, supporting the continuation of 26 January as a day of national celebration, is articulated by those who view Australia Day as sacred. Hence the accompanying hymn, “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!”
The third theme, the one I support, is for want of an official logo: “Fuck the Date.” I am yet to see the T-shirt, but I’m sure it’s coming.
My criticism of the “change the date” campaign is that it suggests that the offence being caused by current Australia Day celebrations can be reduced to the narrowness of the date in question – 26 January … A change to the date of an unreflected national pageant will do nothing to shake the collective psyche from a pathological need to wave a flag dominated by the symbol of imperialism and bloody conquest.
Professor Tony Birch is a Senior Research Fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University in Melbourne.
And the Guardian‘s cartoonist, First Dog, reminds us that the first big celebration of 26 January, in 1838, was also the day of the Waterloo Creek massacre, where upwards of 30 – perhaps as many as 200 – Indigenous Australians were killed by mounted police.
So of course celebrating Australia Day on 26 January is very deeply insulting to many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. But let’s not cancel it as a special day in the country’s annual calendar. Let’s make it a day of quiet reflection on what needs to be done – a day of atonement for the crimes committed against Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, a day for Australia to recall the apology Kevin Rudd made in the Australian parliament in February of 2008, a day to demand real and effective action from our political leaders, not just mealy mouthed populism.
And let’s move on to the republic and mark the day that that is achieved as Australia’s Independence Day.
that significant voices in establishment media cast the predictable “debate” around every recent 26 January as “new” or “fresh”, and Indigenous opposition to celebration as symbolism divorced from the historic struggle for rights to land and housing, education, and better economic and health outcomes.
Update 23 January 2018: Michael Brull in New Matilda on one of the ‘issues’ of this Straya Day: the treatment (media, police, Anglo-Celtic) of ‘African youth gang violence’ in Melbourne. Some interesting comparative statistics.
If the problem is African gangs, the solution is tougher policing. Whether policing is already tough enough hasn’t even entered the conversation. Whether police are part of the problem hasn’t even been considered. A political consensus has formed, from the Liberals and the right wing media, to Labor and Fairfax. If this consensus is institutionalised, as currently seems likely, we will see will be further entrenchment and escalation of racialised policing of people of African background.
Right now, political and media elites are a central part of the story. But we shouldn’t forget the traditional role that has been occupied by the police.
The relationship between Australia’s Aborigines and the rest of us is important. It is more important than sending astronauts into space to colonise Mars. It is more important than air-borne delivery of pizzas to the door step by drone. It is more important than the latest squillion dollar fortune made by some nerd finding yet another way to make mega quids by farting around on the Internet. Indeed, the only issue of comparable importance is [former] Senator Vallentine’s project of preventing nuclear annihilation and the two projects are closely related – peace and mutual respect between different peoples.
Update 22 January 2018: Honest History president Frank Bongiorno explores the issues in The Conversation. More to come in this series (it links to them).
Update 22 January 2018: keep the date and change the name – to Invasion Day? (march in Canberra).
So don’t attempt to tell me we are better off after the invasion [says Wirlomin Noongar woman Claire G. Coleman], don’t try and justify the actions of Britain and of the earliest settlers who ignored orders to treat the First Nations people with respect. It was immoral and criminal to invade this continent, to attempt to exterminate the owners of this land and to attempt to erase our cultures. We are justified in our disgust at the flag-waving on January 26 – for us a day of mourning. We are allowed to be angry.
Under this thumbnail, we have archived more than three years of links to and summaries of articles about First Nations.
Update 20 January 2018: more from Jane Lydon in the Bellingen Courier and Toni Hassan in the Brisbane Times, discussing, among other things, the confusion about what actually happened on 26 January 1788. Raises the question should there be a national body that decides whether a day or a custom or a thing is really ‘a Strayan tradition’, perhaps listening to evidence, then bestowing a badge of authenticity. The Académie française has an analogous role regarding the French language. Worth thinking about a Strayan tradition test, with Straya Day and the Boxing Day test as the first cases to be considered. (It’s a joke, Joyce!)
Update 19 January 2018: more from Fatima Measham on Eureka Street, who points out that 26 January has relatively recent official significance. It is about as much a ‘national tradition’ as the Boxing Day cricket test, which has been around for only about 50 years.
Renowned Australian historian and public intellectual, Humphrey McQueen, has often contributed material to Honest History. His article last year, ‘26 January – or thereabouts: thoughts on Australia Day’, was a trenchant survey of the issues. You’ll find there also a collection of links to other material on Australia Day (when? whether? yea or nay?).
Nothing much has changed in the arguments around these perennial issues, which doesn’t mean they aren’t important. However, as we said in our teaser to Humphrey’s article, ‘the real point seems not to be worrying about the date but coming to grips with all of our history, good bits, bad bits, and bits worth celebrating’.
18 January 2018 updated