Is Australia Day held on the wrong date?
Is Australia Day held on the wrong date? An attempt to provide an answer to this important question was recently made by Yarra City Council in Melbourne. Councillors voted to drop the January 26 celebration, citing a growing groundswell of support amid months of consultation with Melbourne’s Traditional Owners and the broader Koori community.
The council’s move which had long been anticipated as controversial by political observers, was celebrated in vigorous fashion by Koori people across Melbourne, Victoria and by Indigenous communities around Australia. It has been hailed as a breakthrough in the march toward true reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
For this continent’s First Peoples, Australia Day has long been considered a Day of Mourning. It is a time when we reflect upon the crimes committed against both our ancestors and our communities today. A time when we acknowledge the ongoing suffering perpetrated against us, by a people who are united in their unwillingness to acknowledge the truth of their own past.
Whilst Melbourne’s Koori community has been celebrating, social media meanwhile has proven a battleground for both heated debate and vitriolic condemnation of the move by extremists.
To examine the hate fuelled responses that litter the airwaves and comment sections of our major media outlets and to try and make sense of a malaise of viciousness and illiberal confusion we must first look at the history of Australia Day in its many guises. To that end we need to look back to Europe’s first clumsy steps onto Australia’s shores.
When the British first arrived in what they would come to call Australia, they found a land which was already inhabited and home to peoples well versed with a variety of experiences regarding interlopers from across the seas. The Dutch had arrived in the 1600’s, the Macassan’s were potentially several hundred years earlier, whilst a line of communication and interactions had existed between mainland Australia and Melanesian peoples through to Papua New Guinea for thousands of years beforehand. This was inclusive of a time when the island group and the continent were last connected by land some 13,000 years ago. On top of all this we can look to the introduction of the non-native dingo to Australia, from across the sea over 7,000 years ago as further evidence of a land that has never been truly isolated.
The British intruded upon a continent which they were ill equipped to recognise as being home to a diverse network of Nations, borne of over 300 language families, diverse beliefs, cultural practices and technologies. They had stumbled upon a place which had been multicultural long before Willem Janszoon, Dirk Hartog or James Cook ever had an opportunity to cast upon its shores a diversity of ignorant notions and means for breaking local laws.
With the British winning the race for the least amount of indifference shown to the continent, they quickly displaced the Dutch and French as potential candidates for invading the landmass. Their notional interest was spurred on by the loss of Turtle Island, sometimes called North America, as a dumping ground for the incarcerated victims of their failed social system.
The Union Jack was raised by Captain Arthur Phillip on the lands of the Gadigal people on January 26, 1788. This was a full week after Phillip’s fleet had arrived upon the continent and two weeks before the formal establishment of the penal colony of New South Wales on February 7, 1788. This was also 17 years after Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of the continent whilst situated on an island near Australia, centred in the geographically, historically and culturally distinct Torres Strait Islands group.
January 26 is neither the birth date of the prison state of New South Wales or significant in the establishment of Australia as a nation. It is a date which marks only the raising of the British flag on Australian soil, an act that few Australians would care to emulate today. The majority of Australians however are victims of an education system that in years gone by has failed to provide accurate or substantial information in relation to Australian history, regardless of whether it relates to Koori people or not. The general public of Australia simply do not know any better. We are a nation which is ignorant of the past, only caring for an abbreviated, sanitised version which is filled with triumphs and heroic acts, where the only crimes and failures which we bother to recognise are those committed by the British. We say “Lest We Forget” in recognition of our heroes, whilst allowing our villainy to be swept beneath the flag.
Australia’s history books for much of our shared history have been written by those who took their cues from the historians of the past, who in turn gained their understanding of the past from the works of those who had invaded Aboriginal lands and had later attempted to earnestly interpret what they had been told by the surviving local peoples. The interpretations they gathered however were poorly constructed and failed to capture the breadth and complexity of Indigenous cultures. Those written volumes of half-truths along with the White Australia policy, wartime propaganda, lazy media and a nationalist zeal as fostered under the Howard Liberal government in the 1990’s were some of the major facets that helped foster a white Australian mythology, which continues to misshape and bastardise our behaviours, understanding and our national identity.
Australia Day was not celebrated as a national event until 1935. It has been mourned by Koori people in an organised manner for almost as long (1938). It didn’t become a national holiday until 1994. Australians are the only people in the world who ignore the date of their nation’s inauguration whilst celebrating the date which is associated with the opening of a prison for their forebears.
In order for Australians to be able to move forward together, we need to seek out and address the truth of our past.