Australia is a complicated and beautiful land. I write this from the land of the Wangal people of the Eora nation, and I respectfully acknowledge them as the past and present traditional owners of the land.
As we approach Australia Day 2017, the diversity of our great nation is highlighted by the debate around January 26. That date means many different things to many different Australians. To some, it is a celebration of the Australia we have now. To others, it is a continual reminder of our nation’s difficult beginning. This juxtaposition highlights the difficulty that Australia has in reconciling our past.
I don’t know how I feel about Australia Day. Australia is a land of contrasts, and the broader culture is strongly influenced by waves of migrants (including myself). I can simultaneously recognise the pain caused by an invasion, while also enjoying the benefits that Australia has given me. Australia Day, for me, is similar to Anzac Day. None of my relatives fought under the Australian flag, but I still feel the sacrifice that Australian soldiers made for this nation. If I can recognise the contribution of war and how it has shaped our nation, why not also recognise the difficult beginnings of this nation?
In 1808, twenty years after the first fleet, convicts organized a party to celebrate their survival in this landscape. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but given that the indigenous population had lived here for at least 60,000 years already, the idea of survival seems a touch overblown. Picture the irony of these ignorant convict individuals, forced to sail to the historical equivalent of the moon, celebrating their very survival. Meanwhile local people who understood the land watched on. That’s brave, idiotic or funny depending on your point of view and highlights that the lack of cooperation resulted in worse outcomes. Had everyone worked together from the start, we may be in a better place today.
I wonder if it is possible to create a pathway towards inclusion and acceptance of the indigenous history and relevance, while not invalidating the current situation. But first some history of the celebration we currently call Australia Day.
Ten years later, in 1818, Governor Macquarie declared the day would be called Foundation Day and gave a holiday and extra rations to all government workers. It wasn’t until 1888 (one years later) that all Australia (except South Australia) celebrated Foundation or Anniversary Day. Fast forward to 1935 (147 years after the first fleet arrived), and Foundation Day was officially renamed Australia Day across the whole nation.
Three years later, on the 150th anniversary, the Aborigines Progressive Association and the Australian Aborigines League organized a “Day of Mourning” conference on 26 January, 1938.
This little known protest should be taught in schools as a historic day. Remember that this was organized by people who were prevented from voting. It wasn’t until 1962 that the Menzies Liberal and Country party gave the right to vote to all Aboriginal people. The referendum of 1967 was about more than voting. Read about it here. From this inauspicious start, the idea of Invasion Day grew until it hit the headlines around the bicentennial year of 1988.
“We must be the only country in the world that marks its national day not by celebrating its identity, but by questioning it,” said the former manager of Tourism Australia Ken Boundy in the early 2000s.
The debate around Australia Day highlights our great diversity. There are two key difficulties in the ‘change the date’ campaign. One is that, unfortunately, many Australians are not ready to acknowledge January 26 is a day of mourning for other Australians. I’d like to think that all Australians have a duty to listen to our first people. Learn about their perspective and become educated about the impact that day has on their culture. Because that culture flows into our collective culture. Whether we like it or not, we are all shaped by our beginnings.
The other issue is obvious. What other date do we pick? The debate around the role of the monarchy in Australia shows how complicated any new decision would be. Imagine the fuss from particular sectors of Australia (and abroad) if we declared that Queens Birthday would now be Australia Day? A neutral date could be 2 September – that’s the date that the obituary to the death of English cricket was published in 1882 and which launched the Ashes series. Or as some have suggested May 8 (Mate)…
I don’t know what the answer is. I only know that I love the diversity of today’s Australia. I know that I am willing to listen and learn. And I will embrace a solution that treats all people with respect. Our anthem says “For those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.” Starting with those who have always been here, how about we try and live up to that?
You can download this image from here.