Tomorrow is Australia Day.
While others are comfortable to hold barbecues, listen to Triple J’s Australia Day countdown, or drape Australian flags around their shoulders, this day sits uneasily in my calendar.
Despite calling this country home for over fifteen years, I have never felt entitled or invited to celebrate it for the simple reason that this date does not do justice to the rich Australian tapestry that existed both prior to white settlement and the events subsequent to it.
In most of our schools, 40,000+ year Aboriginal Australian history is reduced to a footnote to 220 odd years of Western settlement. Unless you go out of your way to find out, you may not know :
- what an Aboriginal Australian map looked like;
- that there were ~400 ATSI (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) languages prior to Western settlement, far exceeding the number of languages spoken in Australia today;
- that they were far from mere hunter gatherers, but in fact ATSIs had serious farm management systems;
- ATSI peoples didn’t need the 1967 referendum to entitle them to vote in Australia – legally their rights went back to colonial times; and
- that not only were their children stolen, their land and human rights taken away, most of their population wiped out (most cruelly in Tasmania), but even today, various Australian state governments owe Aboriginal Australians millions in unpaid wages.
How can we celebrate a day which marks the beginning of such a cruel chapter in our history? For Australia has much to be proud of in its ATSI peoples, who, despite all their struggles and horrors, continue to be one of the world’s longest living cultures!
Sure, we can continue to stereotype these peoples as ‘drunkards who can not look after themselves and sexually abuse their children’, but the reality is far different. Working in the Australian charity sector has shown me just how much the ATSI community is proud of its many cultures, but also how strong their commitment is to ensure that the younger generation of ATSI peoples interact positively within the wider Australian community while retaining and remaining proud of their culture.
What tends to also be forgotten about 26 January is the fact that for many people on board The First Fleet (and subsequent ships) to Australia, the trip was not one of conquest, but instead punishment for crimes including: stealing of goods worth over 5 shillings, the cutting down of a tree, stealing an animal or even bread. Why anyone would want to acknowledge such a day as their national day is beyond me.
Instead of 26 January, some have suggested that we should change the date to 13 February to mark the day the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (in one of his better moments) apologised on behalf of all Australians to its ATSI peoples for past mistreatment of the Stolen generation. In a similar vein, others have pointed to 26 May (National Sorry Day).
While I deeply respect the sentiments and reasons behind these suggestions, I hesitate to agree, as again, this date marks only one side of the Australian story; Australia’s history did not begin with white settlement, but it certainly has not ended with it. Other cultures, be they Chinese, Indian, Italian, German or even Afghan, significantly contributed to Australia’s socio-economic development — panning gold, building dams and train lines, wine growing, or even recently arrived refugees volunteering for Qld flood cleanups. Each new wave of migration continues this trend, contributing a new layer to Australia’s diversity and culture.
So far, it seems that broad public recognition of the contribution of Australia’s non-Anglo Saxon communities is confined to the plethora of ethnic food outlets lining our city streets. While Australia’s passport thankfully pays tribute to ATSI peoples through watermark depictions of their artwork on its first and final pages, the remaining pages are full of native fauna and flora; ‘Australian’ scenes of the outback and Australian beaches; and stereotypical pictures of lifesavers and people playing sports. Absent in all of this are the other ‘cultures’ in Australia. I might as well add the stamp of my own country to those that litter my passport, for I do not recognise me in this reading of Australian identity.
So what we’re left with, in essence, is a day which marks the beginning of suffering for some, a flag that has a flag of another country in the corner of it, and a passport that tells only half of its peoples’ story.
I think Australia, with all its amazing contributions to the world, deserves much better than that. Perhaps we should simply choose a neutral date and recognise it as a date which we acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of all Australians, whether they landed here by boat, plane, or whose ancestors settled here over 40,000 years ago.
“We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.” – Aboriginal proverb
Addendum: Since posting this, I have found out that Aboriginal football player (and all round legend) Adam Goodes has been named Australian of the Year for 2014. How timely for this discussion! Australia, you’ve come a long way, so why not go all the way?!