Current Issues

Australia Day: Change the Date

*Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images of people who have died.

**Featured image from Ngurrbul Badhin.

In recent years, Australia Day has become quite controversial. I’ll admit that in the beginning I had no idea what was happening or why things were getting so heated. I just couldn’t understand all the hype, didn’t have a good grasp on what each argument was. Like most Australians the term ‘Invasion Day’ didn’t sit well with me.

Last year I posted on Facebook about being grateful for living in this amazing country. My exact quote was “whatever people say about the past, I’m just grateful to be living in this awesome country”.

How 12 months can change you.

In addition to teaching Rights and Freedoms for many years as part of the history syllabus, I had the privilege of teaching high school Aboriginal Studies last year. This experience has taught me a lot about Aboriginal culture and made more obvious the continuing hardship faced by Australian Aboriginal peoples. It has also opened my eyes.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still grateful to live in this amazingly, beautiful country, I also see how history is still affecting the people who lived here before white man came.

Why we should Change the Date

Simply put: to celebrate a nation on the day it invaded another lacks empathy and compassion. It trivialises over two centuries of oppression, violence, dispossession and forced assimilation of a people. It supports genocide; cultural and literal.

There is a lot about Australia’s history people don’t want to admit to, and this last point is one of them. When we say ‘Genocide’ we think of Hitler and the Aryan race. The reality is that the term wasn’t even around before or immediately after Hitler and it was created to define his actions, not as a title for them.

The dictionary definition of Genocide: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group. What happened in Australia was genocide. How could you intentionally give native people small pox laced blankets and not call it genocide? How can you massacre a people because they were in your way and not call it genocide? How can you force a people to assimilate to your culture in an attempt to ‘breed it out’ and not call it genocide?

3-generations
The caption under the original image states “Half-caste – along with terms such as caste, quarter-caste, “mix-breed” and others, as shown in the image – were widely used by the British invaders in their attempt to devalue, brand and classify First Nations people”

 

As a result of Captain Cook’s landing, the Aboriginal people experienced trauma that, up until the 1990s, was largely ignored in the History books.

During the 20th Century, children were stolen from their families or manipulated into giving them up. These children and the families suffered (and continue to suffer) significant emotional trauma, many spending the rest of their lives being unable to relocate their families. While in the missions, many children experienced physical and sexual abuse.

These children would grow up to be labourers or housemaids for rich, white families. They would not have direct access to their income, having to ask the Protection Board for permission to access their money, and they would be given much less than their white counterparts (if anything at all). Many of the women working as housemaids were raped by their employer and then kicked out once it was discovered she was pregnant. Later, this child would be taken from her as it represented the best opportunity for assimilation – the white blood was stronger than the black.

Aboriginal people were forced from their fertile land where they had lived for tens of thousands of years and onto barren reserves, unable to access traditional food sources. When they went into ‘town’, they were often ignored or avoided, but many experienced verbal insults and physical violence just because of their skin colour. They were often not served in the shops if there was a white person present and were asked to leave many establishments.

And this is just a few examples, merely touching the surface of the situation. I haven’t spoken of the massacres or frontier wars, events that lead to cultural distrust for doctors, police and other authority figures, the impacts of foreign diseases, the effects of the introduction of alcohol and other substances.

How can we choose to celebrate Australia on a date that has such a far reaching and perpetual impact upon the world’s oldest existing culture?

What date could we use?

The fact is, there are 354 other dates of the year we could look at. Captain Cook’s landing does not signify when Australia became a country or anything even remotely connected to who we are as a nation today. With this in mind, here are some I have thought of:

  1. 1 January: This is the day Australia actually became a country in 1901. Before this, Australia was a half dozen or so colonies with little to do with each other. This day marks Australia’s federation and, perhaps other than New Zealand (those guys do all the cool things first!), is the first country in the world to do so without bloodshed.
  2. 13 February: in honour of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Sorry Speech. This may be less popular, as many Australians still believe we ‘have nothing to say sorry for’, but it marks the first step to practical reconciliation for Australia.
  3.  27 May: On this day in 1967 over 90% of Australians voted yes to including Aboriginal people in our constitution. This marks the first initial recognition of Aboriginal peoples as citizens, in essence giving them access to the same rights as the rest of Australia.
  4. 3 June: The date the high court of Australia ruled to overturn Terra Nullius and establish Native Title. This was one of the precursors to actual recognition of what had happened over the last 200 years, especially since Australian History in schools started at 1770… We now know the Aboriginal People were living here for much longer than that – longer than any other known civilization. The Mabo Case that lead to this decision was the first step in recognizing the existence and continuation of Aboriginal culture in Australia.
  5. 10 Dec: In honour of the UNDHR that Australia had a major hand in and has since been working towards fully implementing in policy. This would probably be my last choice, because while key Australian politicians were creating the charter in the 1950s, others back home were making policy in defiance of it or completely ignoring it in relation to Aboriginal people. Still, it recognises the prevailing and widespread existence of racism and discrimination on all levels.
  6. 1956 or 2000 Olympic Games opening ceremonies. Since sport is a major part of both cultures, this might be seen as a way of finding the common thread to bring us back together as a whole. These events showcased Australian culture, Indigenous and non-Indigenous (specifically the 2000 Olympic Games), to the world. The 2000 Olypmic Games and was one of the first times all sections of society worked together and were recognised as equal.
cathy freeman
Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron at the 2000 Olympic Games. Trying to find a primary source for this image was so very hard – this one comes from an article written 15 years later, and not about her missing suit!

 

The reality is, there are dozens of more appropriate dates we could be using, some more than others. Many of the above could be argued as supporting one culture over the other, but the point is that the events listed promote positive relations between what appears to be the two sides of Australian society. The date should reflect positive aspects of our culture and serve to reconcile and ‘close the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

What we do need to do is find a date that is universal. In reality, it can’t be about the rights of one person or the lack of them for another. It can’t be a date that is significant for one people over another.

Perhaps we find a date when nothing of great significance happened and choose it, a ‘blank date’ and make it something great.

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