Australia Day: a day for deep conversation
To dream of ways in which Australia and its people can see differently, and do better, is not to be self-despising ‘woke’ citizens, as education minister Alan Tudge would have us believe as he prosecutes the continuing cultural wars of the political right.
I am a proud Australian by adoption and so grateful to be living here. The multi-cultural, multi faith nature of modern Australia is very attractive. The ecology and openness of Australia’s topography is awe inspiring and within reach of all Australians. That Australia is one of a very few enduring democracies is to be much treasured and protected. Australia’s inherent suspicion of authority and yet its law-abiding nature demonstrated through the covid pandemic is to be admired. The 60k year cultural heritage bequeathed to recent arrivals by the country’s indigenous people is a gift beyond measure. The courage of pioneers in early days of white settlement and the courage of first nations people who cannot and will not allow their history, culture and tradition to disappear both deserve admiration.
These and many other aspects of Australian life are to be admired and celebrated.
Equally there are aspects of Australian life and history that need to be revisited.
It is a regrettable political fact that beating the drums of conflict, feigning aggression in the name of national security, is an election vote winner and a means of camouflaging more serious domestic ills. The brazen remodelling of the National War Memorial in Canberra, now underway, from a place of solemn commemoration to a military Disney land, epitomises the glorification of war and the economy of armaments. War is always failure, failure to negotiate, failure of the human ideal of peace. Australians should never have been involved in WW1, the war from which the ANZAC tradition springs. This war resulted from the ‘shirt fronting’ hubris of some European leaders and had nothing to do with addressing fundamental ills which had exhausted all other options. Had there not been WW1 there probably would not have been WW2, which emerged from the inability of allied victors to facilitate restoration for the German vanquished. Following WW1, the Allies carved up the Middle East to suit their economic and strategic needs and bequeathed to Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon divisions not of their own making, divisions and conflicts that are rawer today than ever.
Vietnam, the Gulf, Afghanistan, have been conflicts which caused great loss on all sides with no measurable gain. It is not only right, but a solemn responsibility to commemorate the fallen, but it is equally a solemn duty to unveil the circumstances under which they fell and the culpability of those who, from their relative security, sent them into harm’s way, or indeed retain the capacity to do so in the present.
Dutton, Tudge, et al, belittle and demean those who question current military strategic initiatives. But what do these gentlemen really believe AUKUS or some very expensive submarines are going to do to make the world and Australian life a better and safer place in 40 or 50 years’ time. We already know that any who would seek to harm us in the future will do so through trade and through already proven capacity to shut down the electronics upon which every aspect of daily life now depends.
That white settlement was established on a lie, the high Court has decreed in the Mabo case. This was not an empty land. That Australia’s indigenous were unrecognised as citizens well into the lifetime of many of us is a fact now hard to believe. That colonial papers in the 1800’s heralded the extermination of indigenous people in the same way one might herald the extermination of vermin is a truth about which we would prefer not to be reminded.
Until at least the prime ministership of Billy McMahon ‘assimilation’ was the official goal of government, a desire that indigenous people gradually become absorbed, without distinction, within European society.
What is now clear is that the cultural ‘gene’ of Australia’s indigenous is extremely resilient and perhaps stronger than the cultural ‘gene’ of people like me of British stock! (When all is said and done what are the enduring, let alone endearing, features of British identity apart from the fast we have given the globe its lingua franca! Our gene seems to predominate in competition rather than cooperation and judges success or failure through power or ownership.
As we know, Indigenous culture and identity is forged through unbreakable connection with country. Why would the rest of us not want to be imbued with such identity?
“Voice”, code for Indigenous recognition and influence, is not about reluctant but supposed magnanimous gifting of a right to indigenous that is not shared by all Australians. It is about enabling full indigenous expression in Australian life which will mean enhancement and enrichment for us all. In our ‘culture’ we see most things through the prism of owning or possessing, therefore if someone has something I do not have it means loss to me. Indigenous culture looks through a spiritual prism, not a prism of power and possession, we are all in desperate need of seeing through this prism.
For several decades Australian prosperity was derived from the sheep’s back. More latterly it has been derived from the conversion of the landscape into a quarry. In both there has been an assumption that wealth could be stripped without thought to the ongoing sustainability of the landscape.
In relation to agriculture, recent years have seen a veritable revolution in farming practice. Restorative farming is now widespread with evidence already in that not only can the land be rejuvenated - if it is given the space -, but that long term profitability follows.
The same cannot be said for mining. Even sceptics know that Australia is the most climatically vulnerable continent on the planet. Wealth from the extraction of fossil fuels brings current prosperity at irreparable cost to the future. Barnaby Joyce, you cannot be in favour of expanding fossil fuel extraction and sustainable agriculture. You have obviously chosen mining.
These and many other conversations need to be pursued amongst all Australians. I remain strongly unconvinced that 26th January is the day to hold these conversations. Whatever day we celebrate Australia, there is far more urgent business than beach, barbecues, and political platitudes.