From the Australia Day website:
“Australia Day, 26 January, is the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Great Britain, and the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove by its commander Captain Arthur Phillip, in 1788”
But in 1788 there was no Australia, indeed the very concept of a new country, united by Federation only became popular in the mid to late 1880’s thanks to the Australian Natives’ Association which, to my surprise was not a club for Aboriginal people but a vehicle through which to glorify the middle class whites (mostly male) (OK, that’s my bias there but I reached that conclusion by reading what is written in this link.
It is interesting to note that Women were permitted to set up their own branch of the ANA and the Adelaide group had their first meeting in October 1889. While this is at least a little encouraging what is less encouraging is a note at the bottom of the recorded minutes mentioning the ‘Chinese Question’. Further investigation shows the ‘China Question’ to be the taxes that Chinese ‘Australians’ have to pay to cross from state to state – taxes that white Australians do not have to pay. Fair go?
The idea of an ‘Australia Day’ pre-dates federation and was first muted by a ANA member in a letter during the 1885 ANA congress. The author was a Mr E.W Swift:
‘The idea for Australia Day, to be celebrated on January 26, was first suggested in a letter from E.W. Swift of Ballarat to the 1885 ANA conference. At the association’s suggestion, the Victorian government organised with its counterparts in the other colonies for the first national celebration of the day in 1888, the centenary of European settlement in Australia.’
One of the people to read that letter would have been Mr Alfred Deakin, the chap that went on to become Australia’s second Prime Minister. Deakin was a key member of the ANA around this time and while he did champion many social welfare moves, especially for his ‘Australian Natives’ he was also a key voice in the ‘White Australia’ and ‘federation’ mindsets. The White Australia mindset helped shape policy and attitudes throughout the country over the coming decades – some would say that undercurrents of this work still hold Australia back today, although the governments official position and policy writing changed following World War 2 in 1949. In terms of the Federation it is clear that Deakin had a significant part to play in pushing forward with this idea and in working out the detail of how a federated Australia would relate to the motherland.
In all this talk of federation, immigration policy and social welfare, Aboriginal Australians don’t really warrant a mention being even less desirable than non-white immigrants.
But these people were in Victoria, in New South Wales, my state, we had Sir Henry Parkes.
While the political talk gathered pace I’m sure there would have been a great appetite for a day to celebrate all that was being achieved in this exciting ‘new’ colony! While I don’t really know what went on in Sir Henry Parkes mind I can comment on what I have read and that is that the significance of marking this ‘day of celebration’ on 26th January was not lost on him – again, this is from the official government website:
‘There had been much debate in Sydney about what kind of celebrations should mark the centenary. Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, planned something for everyone, or almost everyone. When questioned about what was being planned for the Aborigines, Parkes retorted, ‘And remind them that we have robbed them?’ At the centre of his plans was the unveiling of a statue of Queen Victoria, the British sovereign since 1837, the opening of Centennial Park, a park for the people, and a great banquet for leading citizens. And, of course, the Sydney Regatta.’
And so it went on and on and on and on until we get to today, two days after 2017’s Australia day.
I am 100% for a change of date BECAUSE of this history – because the date was conceived by a middle class elite FOR a middle class elite that excludes the very thing that has made Australia great and that’s diversity, mateship and our easy-going nature. In fact I’d say it has done more than exclude these things, it has tried to squash those traits out of us.
This year it does appear that the momentum for change has grown and that the opposing voices are getting louder and stronger and I applaud that although I don’t support the burning of flags or other acts of violence.
But our opposition to this date has been met, unsurprisingly, with counter claims that we are just ‘lattee sipping, middle class whingers with bleeding hearts and nothing better to do’.
I am allergic to coffee and I can be just as heartless as the next man thank you.
So why do people like me take to reading history and advocating for change albeit from our position of white privilege?
Because our privilege has taught us compassion, highlighted to us that words and deeds do matter and that there is no such thing as a meaningless date (unless we’re talking about Tinder…)
So what do we want now?
What do I want now?
All I want is the date to change and to change because we have collectively acknowledged the inherent racism and dehumanizing undertones that surrounded the origin of this day. A day for the whole of Australia to celebrate unless you are a person of colour or Aboriginal? Really?
But some aboriginal people are fine with the day and want us to just get on with more important things.
I acknowledge that this is true and that there is much truth and value in drawing a line in the sand and walking over it. Healing. But I remain unmoved in my opposition to this date.
To use the healing analogy just think about what happens when a wound heals over an infection. Or what happens when a wound is re-opened time and time again, even just a little bit?
Let there be no doubt about it, for many this is a fresh, living wound.
Some more recent history:
1938 – Day Of Mourning.
Many people cite 1938 as the first time that Australia really celebrated Australia Day in the way we do today. It marked the 150th anniversary of Cooks landing and with it a chance to marvel at how far this great nation had come.
But again, greatness and progress are subjective and some subjects were not ‘loving it’ not least because in 1938 Australia’s Aboriginal Community were still very much treated as the nations underclass.
The 26th of January, 1938 is not a day of rejoicing for Australia’s Aborigines; it is a day of mourning. This festival of 150 years of so-called ‘progress’ in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country. Read more here.
Below is a list of just some of the thing Aboriginal Australians had to live with in the good old 1930’s.
In 1934 the Aboriginals Act, Aboriginal people could give up their heritage and identity and gain access to the same rights as whites. Nice!
Aboriginal children could still be removed without a court order.
In Western Australia Aboriginal people could be taken into custody without trial and were banned from entering some towns and cities (including Perth) without a permit.
A non-negotiable assimilation policy was introduced and was forcibly enacted.
And more recently.
Aboriginal people had to wait until 1967 to be counted in the national census. That’s only 7 years before I was born for goodness sake – nearly within my lifetime! NOT LONG AGO!
So again, what am I trying to achieve here?
I want us to be able to draw a line and move over it together. I want that line to be low, ground-low, a line that everyone can cross, that everyone wants to hold hands and step (or wheel) over. I want us to be able to do this with the solemnity that the occasion deserves and with the energy of hearts filled with excitement and love for what lies on the other side. I then want us to hug each other before we put another prawn on the barbie, sing our favourite songs and have a go on that giant slip and slide!
And then, when the party is over I want us to go to work putting right all of the constitutional wrongs that have stemmed from this. That will take time and will, a change of date will give us the will!
If we don’t do this I fear that the Australian identity, what makes Australia Australia and not the USA, China, the UK, Vietnam, Germany or wherever will vanish. As a Brit whose been here for nearly 14 years I feel anything but a proud Australian on 26th January and I do what I can to avoid all ‘celebration’ – yes I do often just carry on working – It doesn’t have to be like this.
So that’s just a bit of the background into why I can’t learn to just ‘get over myself’ and enjoy this date.
PS: And as if I need any further reason to doubt the joined-up-thinking behind this occasion we are now told to eat lamb on this day. Lamb is not native to this country, sheep are heavy footed and not entirely suited to the soil of this land, often compacting it and leaving it less fertile than it otherwise could be. Sure I love a lamb chop but how much more dis-connected from this country, this land could we be? I sometimes wonder…….
PPS: So what other date should it be? Well there is a fun campaign to have it on May 8th as said quickly that sounds like Mate which is quintessentially Aussie and something that really appeals to me I do understand that Jan is a much better time for all things BBQ and fun! So I think that any date after 1st and before 31st would be good. Preferably before 26th as that makes it easier to get a clean run at the new school year which currently has to either wait until after the date to return from the summer break or has to straddle it thus leaving two part-weeks and a longer period of time to get the kids settled.