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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Australia Day - Changing the date will achieve nothing if nothing changes for indigenous people

Australia Day - Changing the date will achieve nothing if nothing changes for indigenous people

For many indigenous people, 26 January is seen as Invasion Day. It is the date the First Fleet landed in Botany Bay and has come to symbolise the massacres, displacement and human rights abuses of indigenous people that followed and which continues to this day.

As a result, there is a push to have Australia Day celebrated on a more appropriate date.

26 January is the anniversary of an invasion and of the establishment of a British colony, it isn't the anniversary of the establishment of Australia. That would be 1 January 1901. However, as that is already a public holiday, Aussies would lose their collective gum-nuts if New Year's Day was coupled with Aussie Day.

To compound the indignity of 26 January, it has been hijacked by white nationalists. It is the day when racists come out of the woodwork, flying and wearing Australian flags and demanding that non-white's, those from different cultural backgrounds, turn their back on their cultures and morph into some ill-defined Australian 'culture'. Whatever that may be.

Prime Racist Pauline Hanson, has long been bagging out multiculturalism, claiming it has failed. What her and the far-right forget is that Australia was built by multiple cultures, including our own first peoples, and then migrants from numerous lands, such as Asia, Middle East, Europe, the South Pacific. And of course, they were of various religions, including Islam, the religion that the bigots love to hate.

Australian culture is a potpourri of everyone else's culture, so it's a tad rude to expect people to forget those cultures.

26 January has been seen as a Day of Mourning almost as long as it's been acknowledged as Australia Day. It wasn't until 1935, that all states and territories agreed on 26 January being Australia Day. In 1938, at the 150th anniversary of the First Fleet landing, aboriginal leaders met in Sydney for a Day of Mourning and Protest. As a national holiday, Australia Day is still relatively young. It was only in 1994, that all states began holding public holidays on the same day(1).

Australian Aborigines Conference - Sesquicentenary Day of Mourning and Protest(1)

However, will changing the date of Australia Day from 26 Januaray really be anything more than a symbolic gesture? Sort of like former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations. While it was a good thing and long overdue, in the end it wasn't followed up with any other action. Yes, it acknowledged that generations of indigenous people had been stolen from their parents, which is important for those most affected by it, but in the end was it more about white people assuaging their guilt, feeling warm and fuzzy, and feeling that was all they needed to do. It wasn't followed up with any effective action to combat indigenous issues.

Changing the date of Australia Day will not change the jingoism, the racism, the ignorance that is prevalent throughout white Australia. One only has to look at the uproar and the threats from the ultra-right wing over a billboard in Melbourne showing two young Muslim girls in hijabs celebrating Australia Day. Talk about hypocrites. On one hand, the bigots bang on about Muslims having to embrace Australia and to love the nation, but when they do the same bigots get upset. The billboard was taken down as a result of this uproar. After all, we can't upset the delicate feelings of the ultra-right who take offence at anything that doesn't fit with their extremely myopic view.

Thankfully, thousands of Aussies realised this was unacceptable and a crowd-funding campaign raised more than $160,000 to put the ads back up on billboards around the country. This was a great kick in the guts of the bigots. There was an argument put forward by some on the left that while the crowd-funding was well-meaning, it just reinforced the denial of the genocide and displacement of indigenous people. This has merit, but is conflating two very important issues. Of course we shouldn't ignore the significance of 26 January as the anniversary of the invasion and subsequent brutality against indigenous people. But we also shouldn't tolerate intolerance against modern Australians. Australia Day, whether the date is moved or not, will continue to be a celebration of Australia as a nation, and as such the message needed to be sent to the white nationalists that modern Australia is a land that welcomes and is replete with people from all sorts of religions and cultures.

Following the crowd-funding campaign, billboards were put up and not surprisingly, the bigots went off their collective nuts. Once such billboard was at the Canberra Theatre, which received threats of violence and bombing(2).

Patriotism has become synonymous with racism and exclusivity, and disturbingly, this has permeated society to the point that it has become normalised. Criticising racism often results in accusations of being 'unAustralian'.

And then there was the uproar over the Meat and Livestock Association's annual advertisement for lamb. The 2017 ad drew criticism on a number of fronts, not least of which was that it failed to mention Australia Day. Some years ago the MLA decided to hijack Australia Day in order to promote lamb as the traditional food of Aussies on Aussie Day. There has never been an official food for Australia Day. This was purely a capitalist campaign at making money through sales of lamb. Nothing more. It has nothing to do with patriotism, yet the bigots condemned the MLA for being unAustralian because their adverisement didn't mention Australia Day.

The ad started out with aborigines having a barbeque on the beach and then boats arriving from all over the world with stereotypes of migrants. The ad ended with the comment, 'aren't we all boat people'. While it's not the greatest ad, the message it was trying to send is important; that Australia is a culturally diverse nation, and importantly, that refugees should not be demonised as we are all boat people. Some may feel it belittles the suffering of indigenous people or reinforces cultural stereotypes, but in the end it was a great message ... and an important one ... about tolerance, inclusion, understanding and acceptance.

Moving Australia Day will mean nothing if we don't challenge the ignorance and the intolerance that underpins it. Instead of fomenting racism and using it for political gain as Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi, George Christensen and their ilk do, both the Liberal Party and the Labor Party must do their best to expose the ignorance behind racism. Additionally, it is up to Australians generally to dispute the racist garbage that bigots spout and the right wing media often publishes.

If Australia Day is moved it is likely that the intolerant will say that the do-gooders got what we wanted and then expect us to shut up and move on, accusing us of never being happy. Will moving Australia Day affect the dialogue around the invasion, the genocide, the stolen generations, the ongoing abuse and marginalisation that indigenous people experience to this day?

Moving Australia Day will not change the fact that white settlement was a racist invasion.

But hey, this is just a 'black arm-band' view of history isn't it?

A black arm-band is a better than a white blind-fold.

The so-called 'black arm-band' history is at least truthful and ensures that history is not forgotten. It also means that we can understand the causes of today's inequality and abuse of indigenous people and take effective action to counter the inequality and abuse.

26 January is a divisive date. On the one hand, there are those who will celebrate Australia as a nation, as a land of freedom and opportunity. Some of the people will be bigots, but many are ordinary Aussies who are proud of their nation and grateful they don't live in a country that persecutes them. For that matter, many of the people celebrating Australia Day are migrants or refugees who truly do love this nation. On the other hand, there are those who commemorate 26 January as Invasion Day. Many will march at Invasion Day rallies around the country, ensuring that the suffering of indigenous people is not forgotten and calling for real action to combat the poverty, prejudice, inequality, to remember the stolen generation and the deaths in custody, to challenge the white blindfold view of history and ensure the heroism of the indigenous warriors in the Frontier Wars is remembered.

While 26 January is an offensive date on which to celebrate being Australian, will the protests against it stop if it is celebrated on another day? Will those of us who see 26 January as Invasion Day, then join in the celebrations on another day? Perhaps.

There is a lot to celebrate about Australia. We are a wealthy, peaceful nation, largely free to live out our lives and achieve our goals.  If we can ensure the wealth is sustained and shared, we have the ability to do a lot of good for people domestically and internationally. We can knock down barriers of intolerance and build a nation of harmony, regardless of the many cultures and religions that are represented here. Australia is supposed to be the land of the 'Fair Go', then everyone should be treated fairly, not forced to become clones of a myopic few who fail to recognise or understand the history of Australia.

If Australia Day is moved to another date, then celebrate Australia's diversity and beauty. However, 26 January should become a national day commemorating the invasion. There are few cenotaphs that memorialise the frontier wars, so this would be a time to remember and pay respects to the indigenous people who suffered and died in the defence of their lands.

The holiest day on the Australian calendar is Anzac Day, in which the country is awash with cenotaphs thronged by people paying their respects to those who fought and died for Australia, largely in foreign wars. Yet when in 1988 an aboriginal man laid a wreath on Anzac Day in Sydney to commemorate the indigenous people who died defending their own lands, he was stopped and taken away(3).

Australian poet, Bruce Dawe, describes the lack of remembrance in his poem, For the Other Fallen:

You fought here for your country.
Where are your monuments?
You resisted the invader as best you knew how.
Where are your songs of those days?
When you were captured you were not prisoners-of-war.
That would have been awkward.
You had the misfortune of occupying 'unoccupied land'.
You had to correct your gross error.
There was a pioneer tradition waiting to be unfolded.
Tales as resilient as ironbark.
Your share in them was minimal and negative.
You were rather slow to understand this.
The bush and the stone and the stream.
The tree. The plain.
The special green. The faded calico blue,
They were your last line of resistance.
You fought here for your country.
Where are your monuments?
The difficulties we have in belonging
- these, these are your cenotaph.
(Bruce Dawe)

Regardless of whether Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January or another, this is the challenge to all of us:
  • Never forget Australia's black history and it's human rights abuses (4)
  • Never forget the genocide, such as in Tasmania where almost every aboriginal person was murdered 
  • Never forget the killing fields in which the Native Mounted Police exterminated large numbers of aborigines(3)
  • Never forget the frontier wars and the massacres of indigenous people
  • Never forget that indigenous people were prohibited from speaking their languages and practising their culture
  • Never forget that indigenous people were once treated no better than flora and fauna.
  • Never forget that aborigines were once denied freedom in their own land, subject to curfews and having to obtain permits to travel and to marry(5)
  • Never forget that we nuked aboriginal tribes at Maralinga
  • Never forget the stolen generations, the rape and abuse of indigenous people
  • Never forget that many indigenous people worked for no wages or their wages were garnered by the government and put in trust accounts and the money was rarely given back to the people who earned it(6)
  • Never forget the deaths in custody, which continue to this day
  • Don't turn our backs on indigenous history
  • Genuinely work together for true reconciliation with the first peoples of this land
  • End the unequal treatment of indigenous people, whether it be in the justice systems, health, education, employment, housing or society.

Certificate of Exemption - Mary Rose Woods(7)

As an example, Certificates of Exemption such as the one above, were issued to a few aborigines who had displayed a character that the white people were happy with. The Exemption meant that they could 'open a bank account, receive certain Commonwealth social service benefits, own land and purchase alcohol', however, the holders of the certificates were 'not allowed to live with their families on reserves and even had to apply for permission to visit them'(8). The exemptions could be revoked at any time without warning or appeal. Aborigines were prisoners in their own lands. 

A common argument that non-indigenous people will put forward is that all of this was decades ago, that it is time for indigenous people to move on. 

Firstly, denying history denies people an ability to move on. How can there be reconciliation with indigenous people if we deny the abuse that they suffered? How can we move on from history if we fail to understand it or the reasons behind it? if we don't understand our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Secondly, what many don't seem to understand is that the abuse didn't end decades ago. It continues to this day. Indigenous people are greatly over-represented in prisons, often being arrested and sentenced for crimes that white people are rarely if ever charged with. Indigenous people are eight times more likely to be imprisoned than non-indigenous people. Indigenous people represent 3% of the Australian population but 27% of the prison population. Many of them are imprisoned for trivial crimes, including fine default.(9) Part of the solution, is to improve education and employment opportunities and to end the racist actions of law enforcement officers who feel led to arrest indigenous people for minor crimes. 

It's been more than 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The 1989 Royal Commission investigated 99 deaths in the previous 10 years (an average of around 10 deaths per year). In the subsequent 25 years, 340 indigenous people have died in custody(10) (more than 13 deaths averaged per year). Few of the 339 recommendations have been implemented and meanwhile non-indigenous Australia is in denial about the abuse and persecution of indigenous people. Is it any wonder then that the rate of indigenous deaths in custody has increased since the Royal Commission. 

Non-indigenous Australia can't simply say that indigenous history was decades ago and to get over it. It is still happening.

It wasn't luck that made Australia the 'Lucky' Country. Australia got rich through the deliberate theft and rape of indigenous lands and resources. It was also the hard work of indigenous people and migrants from all lands and religions that made Australia what it is today.

Certainly celebrate our great nation, its diversity and its wealth, but never forget its history.

Whether Australia Day moves from 26 January or not, Australians should acknowledge and remember our brutal past, understand its discriminatory present and build a peaceful and harmonious future that benefits indigenous people and appreciates their culture. Unless this happens, changing the date will be a symbolic gesture only.

Moving Australia Day from 26 January will achieve nothing, if nothing changes for our first people.


1. Australia Day, History, Accessed 26 January 2017.

2. ABC News, Ewan Gilbert, 'Australia Day billboard with girls in hijabs prompts online call to 'bomb' Canberra Theatre', 25 January 2017, Accessed 26 January 2017.

3. Pilger, J. (1992), 'A Secret County'. London: Vintage.

4. Reynolds, H. (2000). 'Why Weren't We Told? : a personal search for the truth about our history'. Ringwood, Vic. New York, N.Y. Penguin.

5. Frankland, K. Queensland Department of Communities. (1994). 'A Brief History of Government Administration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Queensland', Accessed 26 January 2017.

6. Kidd, R. (2000), 'Black Lives, Government Lies'. Sydney: UNSW Press.

7. National Museum Australia, From Little Things Big Things Grow: Fighting for Indigenous Rights 1920-1970, Programme to be White, Mary Terszak's story of surviving assimilation, Accessed 26 January 2017.

8. Australian Human Rights Commission, 'Bringing Them Home, Chapter 8, Assimilation 1936 - 1962', Accessed 26 January 2017.

9. ABC News, Lauren Day, 'Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: Grieving families lament lack of reform', 14 April 2016, Accessed 26 January 2017.

10. The Guardian, Calla Wahlquist, 'Aboriginal deaths in custody: 25 years on, the vicious cycle remains', 15 April 2016, Accessed 26 January 2017.

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