Enduring another Australia Day

Aboriginals communities stage a protest on Australia Day. Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Australia Day is over for another year and as time goes by, it becomes a more painful experience: it’s recognised as Invasion Day by the Indigenous community and most people are unclear about what the day is meant to commemorate. Some people think it commemorates the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1770; some think it’s about the federation of the states into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901; others don’t care, and most people just look forward to having a day off from work. It has been held on five different dates throughout Australia’s history and only officially became a holiday in all states and territories in 1994.

More recently, Australia Day has become a symbol of nationalism and jingoism and, instead of existing as a day of unity, it has become a day of division, a day of divided histories and, as to be expected, another day where conservative politicians map out their battleground positions in their ongoing cultural wars.

Australia Day Awards are now going out to divisive conservative candidates: last year, it was the conservative writer and commentator specialising in sex and gender issues, Bettina Arndt; this year, it’s former tennis player and self-made church minister, Margaret Court, a figure who has offered conservative objections on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

In recent years, 67 per cent of Australia Day Awards have been provided to former Liberal Party and National Party politicians. It’s evident Australia Day has been hijacked by one side of politics: it’s not an inclusive day and becoming more divisive as time goes by. And it’s a date that is due for a change.

Within the community, it’s comforting to have a day where the positive aspects of Australian life, history and culture can be reflected upon. But when there are some profoundly negative aspects to deal with, Australia Day will never strike the right chord. There should be a day set aside in the national calendar where Australia genuinely celebrates Indigenous culture, grieves with people with Indigenous ancestors, and uses it as a focal point to start repairing the problems of the past.

Unfettered jingoism and nationalism can become a very dangerous factor within a society, particularly that American style of nationalism based around the flag and knowing the words to a national anthem, without understanding the context of history, how a country arrived at this point of time in history, without a reflection of the fact that the country was built on the displacement of another group of people that were here before colonisation.

There is much to celebrate in Australia, for those who have the right background and the access to the right opportunities; there is much to commiserate, for those people who have had their opportunities removed from them through historical mistakes and outright theft of their land and culture. Finding that middle ground between those two factors is important and, so far, that middle ground has not been found.

There has been a marked shift in the perceptions of Australia Day over recent years. This year especially, the words ‘Invasion Day’ have been used more prominently within the media and not as negatively as would have been expected with the mainstream media, as if there is now an understanding that there are more people outside of Indigenous communities accept that it’s a troublesome day.

And it’s certainly a conversation that needs to continue into the future. In a recent Ipsos poll, 28 per cent of people surveyed would like to see the date of Australia Day moved’; 24 per cent didn’t actually care; and 48 per cent want to keep Australia Day where it is on 26 January—and that’s not the majority of people.

The first official Australia Day was held on 30 July in 1915, as a fundraising event for the war effort of World War I. In the three subsequent years, Australia Day was held on 28 July 1916, 27 July 1917 and 26 July 1918 so, there has been some historical flexibility. Today, however, there’s a great deal of political resistance to even thinking about moving Australia Day.

The current date is the day in which New South Wales was announced as a colony, when Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. But the other colonies of Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia were formed much later and on different dates, existing as quasi-independent states until the federation of Australia on 1 January 1901. Historically, there are anomalies about the different dates of colonisation and nationhood but, essentially, these are dates that have excluded Indigenous history and Indigenous people. Changing the date of Australia Day would be a good first step in healing divisions within the community and including a more comprehensive Indigenous history as well.

The other factor to take into account is that even if Australia Day is moved to a different date, it is always going to be a difficult day for the Indigenous community. And if the Australian community wants to avoid speculation and problems in the future about this date—whether it remains on the same date or changed to another in the calendar—would it not be better to consult with the Indigenous communities and ask them what the best resolution should be? And for political leaders: asking the right questions of the right people will end up with the right answers. That’s a process that wouldn’t be too difficult if the political will was there in the first place.

While there’s a perception that Indigenous resistance to Australia Day and the invasion of 1788 is a contemporary development, it has been evident throughout much of Australian history. The first official event was the Day of Mourning, held in 1938 and organised by the Aborigines Progressive Association, to develop an understanding in the community that Australia Day was not a good day for Indigenous people, nor was it wasn’t a cause for celebration.

1938 Day of Mourning.

The events of 26 January 1938 were also the 150th anniversary of the landing of Phillip at Port Jackson, and focal point of the day was a re-enactment of the British meeting Indigenous people for the first time, but it was not historically accurate, nor produced in a very sensitive manner. But at least there was an acknowledgement that the British didn’t just walk onto an empty continent, under the guise of terra nullius.

Resistance to Australia Day has become more prominent in recent years: there was a groundswell of support arising from the 1988 Bicentenary events, when over 40,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people protested against the original invasion in 1788, and the continuing injustice, suffering and dispossession of Aboriginal people. And while it has continued to build ever since those protests in 1988, it’s also important to remember that today’s activists are standing on the shoulders of the people who came before them, going all the way back to 1788.

‘We have survived’. 1988 protests against 1788 invasion.

Realistically, Australia Day has never been a big issue for non-Indigenous communities, and it seems that traditionally, it has been more about gaining a public holiday that signified the end of the extended Christmas holiday period. However, with the increase in resistance to Australia Day by the Indigenous community, it has become day of greater relevance to conservative politicians, simply because ceding any ground at all to Indigenous people is anathema to their political ideology and political thinking.

The event of January 1788 at Sydney Cove was an imperialist takeover of an entire continent. It was a flawed process legally, even according to the British laws that existed at that time. This issue has been rectified somewhat by the Mabo case in 1992 but, legally, there are still many issues from 1788 that need to be resolved: there are the issues of dispossession; the issue of compensation for land that was stolen from Indigenous people. It’s not surprising that many Indigenous people are agitated about the events that occurred in 1788. Changing the date, that won’t make all of these issues disappear, but at least it’s a good start.

One other issue here is that the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has the propensity to insert himself into the national conversation, even when he’s not wanted. Here are his comments about the events of 1788:

Scott Morrison: Those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, all those years ago: it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either. And I think what that day to us demonstrates is how far we’ve come as a country. And I think that’s why it’s important that we mark it in that way. It’s not about that day so much. It’s about how far we’ve come together since that day. You can’t just airbrush things that have happened the past, I think one of the great things about Australia, and I think we’re respected for this, is we’re pretty upfront and honest about our past. But more importantly, we don’t allow it to get in the way that future.

Aside from yet another historical error—there were 11 ships in the First Fleet, not 12, and the assertion about “upfront and honest” about Australia’s history—Morrison was attempting to equate the experiences of his ancestors from the First Fleet—and they would have been criminals as well—with the subjugation of an entire population at the stroke of a pen, removal of land from people who had lived here for thousands of years, and the attempted genocide, all of which have resulted in centuries of racism and oppression for Indigenous people. Morrison’s response is, essentially: ‘well, look at me; I’ve suffered as well, my experiences are as bad as yours’.

It’s difficult to know whether Morrison’s responses are calculated dog-whistling to conservative supporters, ignorance, or a combination of both. It might not have been “a flash day” for his ancestors but mapping out the history of the invaders and Indigenous people over 233 years, who had the better day in 1788? It really is that simple. Morrison displays a lack of historical perspective, a lack of sensitivity and a lack of comprehension. It’s quite unbecoming for a national political leader to be missing these key attributes.

And it’s not really Australia Day unless there is a controversy about the Australia Day Awards, which just seems to add to the pain of Australia Day. The National Australia Day Council decides the recipients of these Awards. It’s a secretive process; the criteria for selection is unknown and not made public; it’s difficult to determine who makes nominations or who is nominated; the selection panel is comprised of Liberal Party operatives. At the head of the panel is Shane Stone, who was the Country Liberal Party Chief Minister of the Northern Territory in the 1990s, so it does seem the National Australia Day Council is a partisan political body.

And because of the political nature of this panel, the good work of the real community workers is overshadowed by controversial people: this year, Margaret Court was provided with the highest Australia Day award, the Companion of the Order of Australia. Was Court meritorious of the award; was it a diversion from the bad news that was enveloping government over problems within the coronavirus vaccine program; or some other kind of political skulduggery?

Ostensibly, Court received the award for services to tennis, but she had already received a Centenary Award in 2001, as well as an Order of Australia award in 2007 for these services. But her work in the field of tennis ended many years ago: she is now a Pentecostal minister with highly conservative and socially regressive views. Perhaps this was a major part of her selection, with Morrison also being a member of the Pentecostal church. There are many other sportspeople that could have been granted the award: the former tennis player Evonne Goolagong Cawley; the former national swimmer, Joanna Griggs; or the athlete, Cathy Freeman. The fact that Margaret Court was provided with the highest award says a great deal about the panel that makes these decisions.

Of course, there are many worthy recipients of these awards, many performing good community work away from the limelight, or enacting social change. The Australian of the Year for 2021 is Grace Tame, an advocate for survivors of sexual assault: she seems to a worthy recipient of an Australia Day award, but someone like Court who is today is a divisive figure and throws vitriol against one part of the community—as well her previous support for apartheid in South Africa—doesn’t espouse the truest values of the Australian community.

Grace Tame, Australian of the Year for 2021.

There needs to be reform for the National Australia Day Council committee, and the way these awards are adjudicated, as well as the conversation about changing the date of Australia Day. It’s apparent though, it is not going to occur in the short-term period: it’s obvious Morrison is implacably opposed to even holding the conversation and nothing is likely to change under his leadership.

One minor credit that can be given to former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is that at least he paid some lip service to Indigenous affairs, even though he did very little in that area. The next Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, fared even worse, claiming the proposed Voice to Parliament, or a Makarrata, was unconstitutional and would create an unnecessary ‘third chamber of Parliament’, even though it was clearly nothing of the sort. But at least there was some acknowledgement that there was an issue that had to be resolved, even if it was postponed into some unknown time into the future for other governments to resolve.

With Morrison, there is no interest at all in Indigenous matters, and he is Prime Minister primarily concerned with vote gathering. All politicians, of course, need to capture votes from the electorate, but most use the process to achieve their agendas or achieve what they believe is in the public interest, what is the right course of action to take, or how this can be transferred into policy ideas. For Morrison, he has calculated that there are no votes for him to be found in Indigenous affairs. His greatest support and endorsement of the Indigenous community—if that’s what it can be called—was to amend one word of the national anthem.

For any changes of substance do occur in Indigenous affairs, it will need to wait for a change of government. It’s obvious that Morrison is a man of privilege and has no intention making an essential change if there are no votes to be found for him.

Both need to be looking over their shoulder, but for different reasons. It’s going to be an exciting year and, with the possibility of a federal election, it’s going to be a very interesting one.

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About Eddy Jokovich and David Lewis 9 Articles
Eddy Jokovich and David Lewis are the presenters of the New Politics podcast.