Australia Day – For some
The Prime Minister has made it clear that any conversation about a changed date for Australian Day is a distraction not to be tolerated. Why? Given the ‘statement from the heart’ and a more broadly accepted understanding that white possession following 26 January 1788 led to dispossession of the indigenous people, why would fair minded Australians not agree that another date is more likely to lead all Australians into a more nuanced understanding of our past as well as a more unified and respectful future?
It seems as if I am always picking on the Prime Minister. I sincerely wish it were otherwise. Not that it would be worrying him, for I am sure he has not read anything I have written, and like the unfortunate Matt Kean, has never heard of me.
I would love to understand where he is coming from, but this insight completely evades me. We share the most basic of narratives, the Christian faith, but where this has led him and where it has led me are two totally divergent paths. It is not that I think he sits more lightly to his faith than I, or that I sit more lightly than he, but while my faith has led me on a path of acknowledging good in what is shared or common, his faith appears to have led him on a path of understanding good in term of what is cocooned personally or privately. My understanding is that life is the sum of all other lives that have intersected with me – lives for which, as a consequence, I have become accountable and responsible. This is where Australia Day comes into my purview.
I came to Australia from Britain as a young 18-year-old to work on the land. I rode to work each morning past the Aboriginal settlement in East Armidale NSW, a reserve, home to the city’s indigenous community, the Gumbaynggirr. It did not occur to me that the people deserved more than pity for their circumstance: that their dignity, self-sufficiency, rich culture, and extraordinary knowledge had been painfully and systematically stripped from them over one hundred years and more. Added to this, I was later to discover the ancestor of my boss, Henry Dangar, had owned Myall Creek at the time of the infamous massacre and had shown zero empathy for the Kamilaroi people slaughtered by his stockmen. Further, he did his best to ensure justice was denied on the assumed basis that a white life was worth more than a dark one. I have been on a very steep learning curve during my 60 years as an Australian, which has meant a completely different attitude of mind. My argument is that while Australia has also been on this steep learning curve, our institutions, symbols, and iconic celebrations, have yet to catch up.
The annual pilgrimage to Myall Creek is now a rite of passage for Australians who wish to understand and absorb the complex narrative of white occupation. It is not a matter of having a ‘black arm band’ view of Australian history, as John Howard once described any attempt to better understand our troubled past. It is a matter of wanting to understand elements that shape our present, that we might be better equipped to forge a more inclusive, just and prosperous future for all. Why is it acceptable to live with consequences that have caused between a third and quarter of all incarcerated people in Australia to be indigenous? Almost every indigenous family has or has had a family member in gaol.
On16 August 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured a handful of Daguragu soil back into the hand of Vincent Lingiari, Gurindji elder and traditional landowner. He was reflecting the reality that Australia’s indigenous people have, and always will have, a place in Australian life that later comers can never assume.
I am firmly of the view that January 26 is not, and can never be, the best date to celebrate Australia Day. I will no longer participate in events slated for that day.
I have just read James Cook by Peter Fitzsimons. Despite being very well researched I am conscious that Fitzsimons loves to use imaginative flourishes in his telling of the story. Nevertheless, his depiction of the Maori deploying strong and at times violent resistance which ultimately led to the NZ treaty of Waitangi, is in stark contrast with Australia’s indigenous, largely drawing back from engagement thus allowing early legislators to erroneously base ownership laws on the lie of Terra Nullius. That this presumption was not overthrown by the High Court of Australia until the Eddy Mabo Case in 1992 indicates how slowly a proper understanding of indigenous rights and the honouring of indigenous culture and history has taken and continues to take.
It is no longer tenable for iconic occasions such as Australia Day to celebrate what amounts to the dispossession of the indigenous people. I know we dress the day with welcome to country and other overlays of indigenous culture, but the fact remains this is not the right day and never can be. Many other days would be more appropriate, such as the celebration of federation. But a simple solution could be no particular day, but one empty in the calendar such as the fourth Friday of a given month that can then be dressed with all the meaning that a modern, reconciled, multi-cultural Australia would like to clothe it.
I am not the only one who puzzles over the fact that the Prime Minister chooses not to be leader and prefers to stay in his old trade as a marketer. If you or I were Prime Minister, why would we not want to lead? There are several opportunities. Climate change is one, there is a wonderful opportunity to lead Australia into a technologically modern, green energy exporting, new job providing, vibrant, forward looking society. But no, he wants to keep us in a fossil dependent, asset stranded future, lagging behind the more creative new economies of the world.
The same applies with indigenous affairs. He has the chance to step beyond Gough Whitlam in leading us all into a future through which Aboriginal knowledge and culture enriches non-indigenous Australians: and autonomous, indigenous Australians benefit from all the resources of wider Australian life.
So Scomo, why don’t you lead? Is it because you lack the skill? In which case you should not have become PM. Or is it because your party does not want you to lead, requiring you simply to market a narrow and increasingly irrelevant ideology? If the latter, you are a captive not a leader. Civil society will increasingly need to fill the void until such time as a political leader from either side of politics attracts the imagination of the Australian electorate.