Carlson, Bronwyn: ‘Change the date’ debates about January 26 distract from the truth telling Australia needs to do

Bronwyn Carlson

“Change the date” debates about January 26 distract from the truth telling Australia needs to do‘, The Conversation, 26 January 2023 updated

As every year for many years, 26 January generated debates this year, made more significant by the associated debates about the Voice. The article below, by Indigenous (D’harawal) academic Professor Bronwyn Carlson, stood out for us, because it reminds us that it is not possible to concentrate on one issue at a time, particularly when that concentration distracts us from other equally or more important issues. (Or is used by some people to cause such distraction.) The same point applies to the Voice and how it relates to Truth-telling, Treaty and Closing the Gap.

Honest History and Heritage Guardians have a particular interest in ensuring the Australian War Memorial properly recognises and commemorates the Frontier Wars. After a promising start there are clear signs of the Memorial back-pedalling under conservative pressure. See our homepage under the heading ‘Frontier Wars retreat at the War Memorial’. Everything connects to everything else. HH


Every year, says Professor Carlson, there is ‘conflict about a date, as opposed to engaging in truth-telling about the arrival of the First Fleet and the conflict and violence that followed’. Mainstream media encourages this. Some white reaction is to tell Indigenous Australians to ‘get over it’ or to find an Indigenous person with views comfortable to white folks, especially shock-jocks.

Telling us we need to stop being “stuck in the past” infers our issue is just with what happened in 1788. This completely ignores the ongoing suffering many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still endure.

The violence of invasion is not in the past

On any given day there are stories about racism and violence towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Deaths in custodypunitive policingbarriers within employment and education systemscultures that tolerate racism and early deaths.

She writes about the Cassius Turvey story and the reaction to it.

This is what lies behind the Australia Day debate for Indigenous people all over the country. Not just the historic violence associated with January 26, but the ongoing violence.

She analyses and dismisses the claim that critics of Australia Day are ‘un-Australian’, tracing the history of that term to 19th century racism.

Changing the date isn’t enough

Changing the date won’t necessarily make a difference as a stand-alone gesture. To truly have something to celebrate we need to firstly address the past, engage in truth-telling and make reparations. Treaty or treaties need to be negotiated and then a shared vision can be established.

Related posts below, collated by HH from various media: ‘everything is connected to everything else’. The common threads: truth-telling is essential; inter-generational trauma is a crucial causal factor

Update 26 January 2023: Arrernte Elder and member of the Stolen Generations William Tilmouth in Crikey (paywall)

The harsh reality is that our young people see no future for themselves. They are just the next wave. Their parents felt the same. We have deep generational trauma, and day to day our families live under persistent stress, fear and hardship.

The recent media storm highlights a contest of space. There is no room to be an Aboriginal person. We are only accepted if we assimilate. If we step off the line drawn for us to follow, then we continue to be punished. Today repeats our experience of yesteryear; we have been displaced, we have been under surveillance our whole lives, denied financial, social and cultural inclusion.

William Tilmouth is involved in ‘a 25-year strategy to achieve long-term change and a First Nations solution: Children’s Ground, designed from our experiences and knowledge’.

I invite the prime minister to sit down with me, our Elders, our families — the people most affected by government policies. Our community leaders are the people with the solutions, whose voices are the most important.

We do not see the future of our young people as dodging bullets, paddy wagons and prisons. We see their future as young people celebrating their inherent talent in an environment of possibility, freedom and justice.

Update 27 January 2023: Uluru Co-Chair Pat Anderson interviewed for Crikey (paywall)

Anderson said it would be a mistake to examine the crisis in Alice Springs in isolation, as though the frayed and fractured ancestral bonds with country and culture wrought by dispossession and perpetuated through generations of misguided government policies were of little consequence.

The violence had conversely laid bare the sweeping failure of successive governments to close the gap, and demarcated with immutable precision the reason the referendum on the Voice must succeed.

“The crisis didn’t just happen overnight,” she said. “It’s the product of generations of neglect, people feeling disempowered with hopelessness, the lack of investment — all the problems known about for years but not dealt with.”

Update 27 January 2023: Settler Australia has not done a good job of listening to Indigenous Australians – for ever, pretty much: Rachel Withers in The Monthly

It’s fair to say that settler Australia has not done a great job of listening to Indigenous people, and it’s understandable that those whose pleas have long been ignored would now be cynical about the idea of a “voice to parliament”. But it’s also fair to say that much of Australia is now listening more closely to the debate, trying to balance the views of those calling for a voice (the vast majority, proponents say) with those who are opposed. Would an official, consensus-driven voice to parliament not help decision-makers make sense of all these disparate voices?

It’s fair to say that governments haven’t always listened to what Indigenous Australians have been saying: cynicism is perfectly justified. But a consensus-driven body that can inform policy and legal decisions – with an authority that goes beyond a megaphone or a column in the national broadsheet – seems like an excellent way for our lawmakers to start getting serious about listening to First Nations people.

Update 27 January 2023: NT academics Rolf Gerritsen and Tanya McDonald in The Conversation on the complex factors beneath Alice Springs crime

The authors focus particularly on ‘the politics of alcohol’.

Alcohol and policing have become the de facto central policy instruments to manage the political crisis. Since the start of the 15-year “intervention” brought in by the Howard government in 2007, residents of Alice Springs have become used to showing their proof of identity or driver’s licence to a police auxiliary officer at the door of the bottleshop, as well as to the cashier at point of purchase.

This measure has failed to prevent alcohol consumption by “banned drinkers”. Secondary (that is, illegal) consumption of alcohol abounds, as people buy alcohol for banned drinker relatives. Also, notwithstanding policy, it is clear that large amounts of alcohol are entering Alice Springs and not being sold through licensed outlets.

The government measures on alcohol are essentially band-aids, keeping in mind the NT Government’s desire to be re-elected in 2024.

Ignored in the package were measures for Indigenous children’s welfare. The drift to Alice has significantly affected the accompanying children, leading to “kids-out-of-control” tropes on social media.

Government services are trying to work out who these children are and where they come from. These kids exhibit the feeling of shame that reflects the impact of the systemic intergenerational trauma of past policies. Also missing from the package is the right for Indigenous community residents to access adequate funding, to teach generations of kids their culture and language, thereby giving back their pride and identity. There is a need for funding for youth groups, employment programs, housing, rehabilitation, therapeutic responses, and support for local Indigenous leadership to boost role models for young people.

Meanwhile, similar alcohol-related issues are evident in other parts of Northern Australia while some promising policy developments in the Territory are not being given sufficient recognition.

Update 28 January 2023: Labor elder Barry Jones in Pearls and Irritations takes a 65 000 year perspective on Australia Day

Going back to the subject with which we began this roundup, Australia Day in context, Barry Jones used a recent speech to canvass a wide range of issues.

The two major elements in British settlement of Australia after 1788 were the convict system and the dispossession of Indigenes, killings and the systematic destruction of their culture. They contributed to an authoritarian strain in the Australian system, which remained, although there was a more liberal, open, democratic, sometimes larrikin, national narrative as well.

Jones looks at our history since 1788.

Given its unpromising beginnings in 1788, ‘settler Australia’ is and has been a country of remarkable achievement, outstandingly successful in many areas. But we could achieve far more for ourselves and humanity generally if we came clean about our past.

He considers arguments about providing detail and possible alternative dates to Australia Day and ends with a strong view about the Voice.

But the Voice to Parliament, however constructed, has the potential to stimulate informed debate, set priorities and lead to practical outcomes.

Is it symbolic? You bet. Don’t underrate the significance of symbols.

But we must act now. Timing is, if not everything, always a central element in whether taking action will work.

I remember with some bitterness that in 1999, with the other Referendum, on a republic, there were zealots who said, ‘The model set out in the Referendum question doesn’t go far enough. If we vote it down now, a better model will quickly emerge that we can all agree on.’

23 years later, this has not yet happened.

I agree completely with Noel Pearson, Tom Calma, Linda Burney, the Dodson Brothers, Marcia Langton, Henry Reynolds, Gareth Evans, Judith Brett, Mark McKenna, Dean Ashenden, the time to act on ‘a Voice’ is now.

It is now 235 years after 26 January 1788, with ‘terra nullius’ as the law of the land for 205 of them. Our Commonwealth Constitution, dating from 1901, made only two references to our First Nations people – both negative: that they were not to be counted in the Census and the Commonwealth could make no laws for their benefit.

The 1967 Referendum was a valuable first step, the Mabo judgment of 1992 was a second – but we must now complete the job.

This is not just for the benefit of First Nations people, it is an essential element of being honest with ourselves, to fulfil the human potential of all of us.

It’s time.

Do it now.


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One comment on “Carlson, Bronwyn: ‘Change the date’ debates about January 26 distract from the truth telling Australia needs to do
  1. Leighton View says:

    Grand rounding up of various viewpoints along with a good summation of where we stand on these related issues. Thank you.

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