The Hypocrisy of Australia Day
As the mercury rises and Australia continues to recover from the festive season, many people’s thoughts turn to the New Year and what it might bring. Days at the beach, forgotten resolutions, cricket, melanoma, swimming, new work projects and barbeque aromas filling the air, as the sounds of lawn mowers and cicadas permeate and engulf us, all whilst we’re lead towards the patriotic stupor of January 26.
It’s not a bad idea
Australia Day is a great idea. We’re a country that loves a party, a music countdown, onions caramelised in beer and thinking about all the great things that this land has to offer. Collectively there’s an enormous amount to be happy about, so it’s hardly a shock that the majority of Australians show a keenness to go with the flow and celebrate the positives, whilst ignoring the negatives of our past. A focus on the ANZAC legend, the Snowy hydro scheme, Bradman and Fred Hollows, Bega cheese, cochlear implants, Stevie Wright, Mary Gilmore, convicts and Ned Kelly. The list is almost endless but it does have its limits, which is precisely what’s wrong with the story we tell ourselves.
Since its inception, Australia Day has been about paying tribute to an Australia that doesn’t exist. It’s a giant exercise in self inflation, designed to engorge the nation, celebrating the achievements of white Australians and occasionally paying lip service to the rest of us. There is no “we” in this story.
Not what you think it is
“It’s a national day of unity” states Malcolm Farr, writing for news.com.au. But it’s not. Let’s not kid ourselves. Simply stating something doesn’t make it so. Our national day of celebration has never been successfully rolled out in a way that invites or makes sense to everyone it’s supposed to be for, despite what our inaccurate history books, misinformed teachers and balding brekky hosts will tell us. It isn’t inclusive of the land’s First Peoples’, nor does it provide meaningful room for diversity of any kind. It isn’t what it should be, or deserves to be. Australia Day is the angel on the tree, a pretty decoration sitting atop a complex narrative which the majority of us have so far failed to understand or properly engage with.
Australians are a smart bunch, but we aren’t particularly interested in facts, unless they are served up as an assortment of hero building exercises and warm, fuzzy feel-good stories regurgitated by a media who won’t give Aboriginal people an opportunity to speak for ourselves. That is unless we fall in-line with the majority view – hello Jacinta Price, or can serve as the villain in a story – hello Anthony Mundine.
At times we’ve shown ourselves to be a nation full of pen-waving bull artists, turning a blind eye when anything challenges the national mythology and a fragile, quite recent sensibility.
Before John Howard, patriotism, pageantry and fanfare were matters that Australians shunned as ridiculous chest beating exercises which were best left to the Americans. We knew who we were and we didn’t need to wave flags in order to remind ourselves, unless of course they were green & gold, boxing kangaroo flags and we were letting ourselves get swept up in the yacht based nouveau riche hobbies of dodgy billionaires.
Despite what the world thinks and we often tell ourselves, ours is a rich culture, filled with great literature, achievements in science, industry and the arts, and we should be considered particularly fortunate when accounting for 65,000 years of a rich and ancient multicultural story and landscape that existed long before 1788.
Disrespect wrapped in respect
The attachment to and protection of January 26 is deeply rooted in racism and stubborn ignorance. It’s about doing what has been done for a few years before and claiming it’s about tradition. Today the Howard inspired bastardisation of our culture that Australia Day has become sees young Australians wearing their country’s flag as a cape whilsts carelessly dragging it along the ground, drinking copious amounts of boxed wine, singing American songs, English soccer chants and presenting as a full blown national parody.
If we delve into the mythology we’re being fed, according to the likes of the Australian Catholic University’s Kevin Donnelly in writing for the Daily Telegraph, Australia Day is about:
The rights and freedoms we now take for granted, including freedom of assembly and speech, the right to a fair and timely trial, and the right to vote and elect a representative government, trace their origins to events that occurred on January 26, 1788.
A grand statement to be sure, but like much of the rest of Donnelly’s commentary, it isn’t quite accurate.
Is the date right?
Captain Cook claimed the east coast of Australia on 22 August 1770 whilst anchored in the Torres Strait. The colony of New South Wales was established on 7 February 1788. Australia did not become a nation until 9 July 1900, with matters formalised on 1 January 1901. We ignore the earlier date because we don’t like to admit that the British got the job done for us, despite our being British subjects right up until 1984.
Our rights were inspired by those of other nations, and indirectly by other Aboriginal peoples. Australia Day was first held on 30 July 1915 and only in New South Wales. Other states have long held their festivities on other dates, with national consensus being reached only in 1994. Aboriginal people have viewed January as a Day of Mourning since 1938, responding to the misguided celebrations then held in Sydney and ignored everywhere else.
Lack of substance
The 26th of January 1788 is nothing more than the day that a British flag was raised and the male convicts aboard the First Fleet were allowed to go ashore. Nothing that this nation holds dear can be traced back to that particular date. January 26 serves no real purpose in Australian history, except as a fanciful focal point for inaccurate nationalistic drama. Fake news had its origins long before an orange lemon rolled into the White House and Australia’s history is riddled with the same counter-productive infections.
Australia has the unenviable distinction of being the only country in the world which marks its origins by deliberately ignoring the date it was founded whilst favouring when a prison for many of the nation’s forebear’s was thought to have been established.
We are the victims of a history that was written by self aggrandizing squatters and bureaucrats, perpetuated by a jingoistic media and more bureaucrats. We hear about the heroes, the positive deeds, Simpson and his donkey, Cliff Young, Weary Dunlop and all about mateship and a fair go. Ideals that matter but rarely get put into use.
We honour the past on ANZAC day, “Lest We Forget”, whilst demanding that we do forget the tens of thousands of men, women and infants who were brutally slaughtered in wars that remain unacknowledged. “Get over it”, “It wasn’t my family”, “It’s in the past”, “I wasn’t alive back then, so why should I say sorry?” Could any sentiment be more dismissive and hypocritical?
If we’re to ignore the crimes perpetrated against Aboriginal people in both the past and present, what exactly is there to celebrate? Our people, culture and history are presented as a afterthought and a sick stereotype. We are a complete mystery to the majority of non-Indigenous Australians. You still think dot paintings and didgeridoos represent all of us, that we were naked nomads without science, laws, religion, land ownership, trade and farming practices. You know nothing, except what a biased and poorly informed media has dished up, after having headed to either the Alice or Darwin, to meet with the “real Aborigines”, despite a majority of Aboriginal people being urban and rural dwellers on the east coast.
Most Aussies can name a half dozen North American native tribes and the names of civil and human rights leaders in the US, South Africa, Tibet, East Timor and beyond. How many know the names Fred Maynard, Jack Patten, Margaret Tucker, William Barak or Bill Onus? We know the names Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, but how many of us know the story of Windradyne or Cumbo Gunnerah?
Living up to the stereotype
Despite the many horrors, it’s not about feeling guilty. It’s about empowering people, feeling empathy and offering compassion, which this country was supposedly built on, through mateship and that fair go. Until non-indigenous Australians come to terms with the fact that they continue to benefit from a society built on the suffering of a people, we won’t have an opportunity to move forward. We should be far better than what we’ve seen so far. We should all acknowledge our past, honour all of our fallen and also celebrate our achievements, on another day. One with real meaning.
The ideal for what January 26 represents in the minds of the majority, in honouring the nation’s birth is flawed. For this land’s First Australians it’s not about January 26, it’s about all that 1770 and 1788 represent; Invasion, mass murder, displacement, slavery, starvation and attempted genocide. Why would it be anything other than mourning, when we weren’t even acknowledged as having been around prior to 1788? We were an inconvenience. We were the problem. It was hoped that our “pillow would be smoothed” as the “tide of history” turned against us, with Aboriginal Australia never being heard from again. But we kept on fighting. We continue to fight.
Much work to be done
We fought for equality, but instead we were handed a government which broke United Nations conventions against human rights in creating the Northern Territory intervention, based on a lie. We fought for Land Rights and we got the cruel joke that is Native Title. When we fought for justice for our murdered women and children, we saw lenient sentencing for non-Indigenous perpetrators, and no sentencing where crimes were perpetrated against us by the police. Some people say that to change the date would be tokenistic, as though this would be one action in a chain of relatively recent demands by those uppity blacks. The reality however is that we simply haven’t been heard. How can we be, when it’s a non-Indigenous media who tell us who our leaders are?
The fight isn’t over. We need the date changed and a Treaty. We need representation and we don’t need “recognition”, community closures or interventions. We aren’t done, so stop expecting us to be. Work with us, hear us, understand and learn.