By Robert Wood
For many people, Australia Day is a day of mourning, of reflection, of protest. There can be no doubt about the ‘change the date’ movement and it is necessary to see it as a starting point rather than the final word. This means we need to move beyond critique and towards an idea of the society we wish to become. To say as much does not make me an apologist for invasion, ignorant of sovereignty, someone uninformed about colonisation. It makes me believe in a future that is reconciled to the possibilities of being truly here. In that way, the conversation about Australia Day is a conversation about identity and our future, about how we live together, today and tomorrow.
After all, what I am to do if we are simply locked into paradigms of our liberal identity positions? I am proud of my in-laws, who are Ngarluma people. In their work as anthropologists, painters, miners, they have given me an insight and appreciation of ongoing Indigenous laws and cultures. I am proud of my father’s family, who are white settlers from Scotland. I love them as people and respect their work on the Snowy Hydro Scheme, Wittenoom Mine, Indian Pacific Railroad. I am also proud of my mother’s family, who are Malayalee immigrants. I love them as people and respect their work as teachers, tradesmen, and counsellors. This story of family is simply a synecdoche for identity in Australia as a whole. We are better off together and this holds true for every field.
So, what is the opening up that ‘change the date’ allows? It allows us to think about a new document that can change how we live our lives on this continent. This is not only about treaty, but also about the republic and a bill of human rights. Treaty is not only an Indigenous issue; the republic not only for whites rejecting the monarchy; human rights applies beyond the people of colour who are some of its foremost champions. All three agendas can fit together if we work together. After all, the legitimacy of the state cannot be assumed in signing compacts with Indigenous bodies; a republic is not only an extension of the white state in an echo of Federation; and a bill of rights is not for the United Nations elite.
So, what do we need?
We need a new social contract. We need a new understanding of how we relate to each other in culture and law. We need to change the date and not only as a negation of what Australia Day now is, but as a positive articulation of what we might become. This is as one society that understands the needs of all the people here, past, present and future. I do not think that is beyond us. I do not think that we can ignore this challenge. After all, the lifestyle of many Australians is one we share; the idea of our public can be generous enough to include the diverse and messy reality we live in on a daily basis; our common values can find material expression in the words that provide a map of what to do, how to live and what the future looks like together.
In that way, we need a new day of celebration, a new day that understands the complexity of the past and present without blinding us to the possibilities of the future, one where we can progress towards a type of understanding that allows each of us to do better, together. There will be, of course, personal interpretations of that, but in calling for a new documents that is a treaty, a new constitution, a bill of rights all at once we can add our voice to changing the date. We can find a new understanding of our place in the world that encourages us all to be a little bit happier, a little bit prouder and a little bit more inspired about our lives in the here and now.
Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.