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Reflections on Australia Day 2019

The other day I happened upon a Facebook meme which argued that even if all white Australians are not personally responsible for the original dispossession of the Indigenous Australian peoples, they have benefited from it. And they have a responsibility to set things right.

There’s a lot of truth here; Though it’s not just white people who benefit ; it’s the whole of non-indigenous society. All non-Indigenous Australians have a responsibility to put things right. Economic and cultural empowerment. A genuine Treaty process.

At the end of the day we want Australia “to belong to all of us”. But Sovereignty was never ceded. A reconciled nation is something that needs to be negotiated. And a Treaty cannot be merely ‘tokenistic’. It has to address Indigenous grievances past and present. It has to set things right – permanently.

Some critics on the Right argue that Left proponents of Indigenous Rights (including on a Treaty) want to ‘divide’ the country. But that’s the whole point of democracy. Recognition of ideological and social divisions; and provision of a democratic process to give them expression – and (to an extent) to resolve those. Though the urge to suppress all social conflict can lead to a kind of fascism. ‘National unity’ can be a watchword for the suppression of dissent. In order for democracy to avoid being overly-authoritarian we need support for civil rights as well; and tolerance of civil disobedience; and support for industrial liberties.

For Australia Day, though, we need to consider our history and our values closely. Uncritical militarism is dangerous; can lead to unthinking support for any and every war we’re dragged in to. There is far too little reflection on the catastrophe of Australia’s participation in World War One. And Billy Hughes’ attempts to enforce conscription when the nation was already being bled dry on the battlefields of Europe.

Colonisation was a trauma for Indigenous peoples and that needs to be remembered. But the ‘old’ Australian culture should not be ‘airbrushed’ either. There’s the spirit of Eureka. There are cultural figures like Henry Lawson who championed the sufferings of the working class and the downtrodden. There were cultural icons like Ginger Meggs. Australia also democratised ahead of Britain, and provided full, universal and equal suffrage (including women’s suffrage). Federation (the formation of the modern nation) was peaceful.

Pre-multiculturalism Australia had a culture. In part it involved deference to Britain and Empire. That led to the catastrophe of over 60,000 dead from the First World War. But it was more than that as well. We need to incorporate the old culture with the newer multiculturalism; and preserve a central place for the appreciation of First Nations. A bit like a Hegelian dialectical spiral where the old is forever preserved in the new.

But remember also that tens of thousands of Australians died fighting fascism in World War II. Prisoners of War of the Japanese endured horrific hardships in Changi and on the Thai-Burma Railway. Be-headings, starvation, torture. The mateship they developed was not some ‘toxic masculinity’. It helped them survive in a bond of comradeship and shared hardship.

And let’s not forget the women who contributed to the fight against Japanese Imperialism and fascism either. Vivian Bullwinkel for instance; who was the sole survivor of a Japanese massacre of nurses; driven into the sea and machine-gunned. As well as testifying regarding Japanese War Crimes, she did crucial work supporting repatriated soldiers after the War.

The history of Australian Communism ; and of other socialists more broadly – can also be thought of as part of Australia’s legacy (and indeed an international legacy as well). I think we can be proud of Evatt’s fight against the domestic McCarthyism. Of Whitlam’s reforms. Of the Communists’ fight against destitution, evictions and so on during the Depression. That our Communists overwhelmingly broke from Stalinism; for instance, took a stand against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That for a while we had a very strong mixed economy; a highly progressive tax system; and a very strongly regulated labour market. For a time there was even a strong element of ‘bipartisan consensus’ there: before the 1970s supply shock (mainly the rise in the price of oil) saw neo-liberalism and attacks on workers embraced in an effort to restore profits.

Mostly people want to enjoy a kind of national identity. We have to contest the meaning and form of that identity. Again, the danger is unthinking militarism and creeping authoritarianism. But the Australian military needs a sense of its history, traditions, values. This is crucial for democracy. Given the history, that should overwhelmingly include anti-fascism.

The idea of an ‘egalitarian Australia’ is almost dead in terms of practical implementation. Over decades it has been ‘emptied out’ into privatisation, labour market deregulation, ‘user pays’ and ‘small government’. But it’s well-worth reconstructing a national identity where the fight is on to retrieve older egalitarian traditions and policies. It’s worth contesting national identity rather than ‘vacating the field’ and giving the Right ‘a free hand’.

On Facebook, also, more Conservative participants were arguing about ‘assimilation’ of indigenous peoples and migrants.

In response I argued:

I wouldn’t want to assimilate Indigenous peoples full stop. ‘Assimilation’ suggests minorities abandoning their old identity and culture to ‘fit in’ with broader society. I’d hope a Treaty would include a commitment to help preserve Indigenous culture and identity. But that we have a shared Australian identity as well. Think of Cathy Freeman when she won gold and did a lap of honour wielding both the Australian flag and the Indigenous flag. Shared cultural elements are the basis for common ground and engagement. I believe in an integration which is compatible with multi-culturalism. What’s necessary is effective dialogue, mutual recognition and mutual understanding. We need to develop mutual respect; and the kind of genuine, active and deep solidarity necessary to fight for a qualitatively improved social and economic system. That is (for me) democratic socialism.

But we have to remember the ‘old’ Australian culture as well. Pre-multi-culturalism Australia was not a ‘blank slate’ as some people like to suggest.

Indigenous peoples could also have their own advisory parliament ; which would communicate their needs and demands to the Federal Parliament. Establishing such an elected advisory body could contribute to reconciliation ; and frameworks for the practical development of a Treaty.

Technically you can have nations within nations. That can potentially lead to divisions re: nationalistic antagonisms (that’s not to say people should ‘forget’ their ethnic origins). But I think the Indigenous First Nations example is unique. They had their national identities. And the authorities of the day tried to take those identities away from them.

January 26th (marking the arrival of the First Fleet) is a divisive date on which to hold ‘Australia Day’. It is suggestive of the notion that ‘real’ Australian history only began with colonisation. Colonisation was a watershed moment – and that will never change; but nonetheless the date should be switched if we are serious about reconciliation.

On the other hand, some kind of ‘national day’ will likely be preserved. And yet the meaning of that day will be – and perhaps must be – contested. There is cause for shame from some chapters of Australian history. There are also causes for pride. Australia Day must be a time for reflection on all of this. And to consider the form an egalitarian and just Australian nation might perhaps take into the future.

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  1. Shaun Newman

    I agree with your assessment Doctor, Aboriginal Australians in the main have been ignored and dispossessed they are still owed historical wages and should be paid such if those people have passed then the historical money owed should go to their families, we should always pay our bills.

  2. corvus boreus

    Today marks the 181 year anniversary of the Waterloo/Slaughterhouse creek massacre, where a punitive raid by colonial authorities led to the killing of dozens of the local Gamilaraay people.
    Happy straya day.

  3. Keitha Granville

    There are many ordinary Australians who do appreciate the relevance and rights of our indigenous people, their voices are swamped by those on both sides continuing the rhetoric of division, bigotry, separation. We can, I suggest we ARE, a truly multicultural society which needs to formally recognise the indigenous nation through a treaty, an inclusive rather than exclusive one, and I endorse your idea of a body of indigenous peoples who make representations to the parliament. I do not believe it is in anyone’s interest to set aside specific Aboriginal seats in the house – this will lead to cronyism, and backroom deals. But we must encourage and endorse more indigenous Australians to put their hands up as candidates. That the date of Australia Day should be changed is as plain as day, maybe to the day we sign a treaty, maybe to the day we become a republic. Anything but Jan 26th.

  4. DrakeN

    A population of one skin, one culture, one religion, one financial/commercial system is so very much easier to manipulate than one of racial, intellectual, spiritual and economic diverstiy.

    Think on it.

  5. helvityni

    We talked yesterday, we’ll talk today, and maybe a little bit more tomorrow as well….

    The doing, the action, can wait; the talk is easy, the action we put into the too hard basket…for how much longer…?

  6. Bronte ALLAN

    Great article Doctor! I agree with your thoughts on Australia Day. I think that January the first should be our National day. It was the date on which this colony was proclaimed as one nation, Australia. At least this day does not “celebrate” (sic) the day on which English & Iriish convicts landed in Botany Bay. Nor does it “commemorate” anything to do with the massacre of the Aboriginal peoples, which seems to have begun almost immediately the soldiers arrived onshore. I know that traditionally, Australians do not like to lose any Public Holiday, so maybe a date could be planned for later in the year & given another name. Just a thought.

  7. Sam

    Apologies in advance, if this comes off as petty.

    I am all for changing the date and recognizing what our ancestors did to the true native population. Possibly even make a post non-australia day Jan 26th have a moments silence?

    Just don’t make the new date Jan 1st. To the rest of the world January 1st is New Years Day but to us it’s possibly going to be Australia Day as well?

    There’s only 3 days on the calendar that don’t work for me, as dates for an Australian national day of celebration. Jan 1st, Dec 25th and Jan 26th as to me those dates have meaning outside of a national holiday and they’ll not ever be anything else. Any of the other 350+ days would be fine. Heck I’d even be in favour of ditching the day altogether over the weirdness of a date sharing setup like that where it conflicts with a more interesting holiday but then again I’ve not really been that passionate about the day anyway, since I was a child.

  8. corvus boreus

    How about either the 21st May or 18th June?
    These mark, respectively, the dates of the passing and enactment of the 1962 Commonwealth Electoral Act, which allowed full voting rights for all adult Indigenous Australians (then called ‘Aboriginal Natives’).

    Or perhaps 27 May?
    This marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum that enabled Indigenous Australians to be officially counted amongst the population, which, although placing First Nations people fully under gubba law, also restricted the rights of states to negatively discriminate, and seems to have signalled a positive step forward in terms of non-Indigenous attitudes to longer-term locals.

  9. Kaye Lee

    I would like to make it the first Monday in September. Not attached to a date. A time to rejoice with the coming of spring. A time of renewal. We could call it by an Indigenous name eg Barndenyirriny (hot weather time) from the Miriwoong calendar or Ngoonungi, (cool, getting warmer) from the D’harawal calendar. I am sure there could be better suggestions for a name.

  10. Paul Davis

    Happy Ngoonungi Day! Love it!

    Well done Kaye Lee, love your work. Hope you can use your powers of persuation and influence to make it so.


  11. Michael Taylor

    Great idea, Kaye. But for one thing: I’d use a word that isn’t confined to one language group or region. That wouldn’t go down well with the mobs west of NSW.

    Note: “mobs” is an acceptable word in northern SA/NT. It might be offensive to other language groups, so I apologise if anyone is offended.

  12. Kaye Lee

    Perhaps that’s something the Voice to parliament could sort out – a name that doesn’t commemorate an event but moreso celebrates the cycle of life and the beginning of the warm weather, a name that we all could embrace that would be uniquely Australian. Time to party.

  13. Kyran

    “And Billy Hughes’ attempts to enforce conscription when the nation was already being bled dry on the battlefields of Europe.”
    Billy Hughes actually commissioned two referendums during the course of WW1, as volunteers decreased and dear old mother England demanded more cannon fodder. Both were a resounding ‘No’ to conscription. It was interesting that the second referendum included servicemen on the western front who also predominantly voted no.
    The conflicted image of the Anzac was best summed up by their frequent insubordination, an unwritten code of ‘salute the man, not the uniform’. Many Anzacs records had both citation for bravery and chivalry, as well as charges for drunk and disorderly conduct and AWL, even desertion.
    This may be “the spirit of Eureka” you make reference to.
    The Hon. Susan Ryan AO, Age Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission gave the “Eureka and Human Rights Friends of Ireland Society Eureka Dinner Lecture” at the Canberra Irish Club, 3 December 2012.

    “If you have been attending these lectures over the years, you will probably have heard this quote from Mark Twain. Following his visit to the Victorian Goldfields in 1895, he said of the Eureka Stockade:
    ‘… It was a revolution – small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression… It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle….’”
    It is ironic that an American traveller has more regard for that brief uprising than most Australians do. Ms Ryan finished by underlining the correlation between Eureka and human rights.
    “In our pursuit of human rights in this 21st century we can continue to draw inspiration from the unlikely but marvellous success of the Ballarat miners at Eureka in the 19th century.”

    This would tend to support your notion; “The idea of an ‘egalitarian Australia’ is almost dead in terms of practical implementation.” Certainly by ‘yesterdays’ standards, we aren’t as certain of our identity anymore.
    Or are we more certain about our identity, just suffering the idiots who have microphones? Your reference to “I wouldn’t want to assimilate Indigenous peoples full stop” certainly disagrees with the likes of Jacinta Price and that Mundine fellow, both of whom are very vocal in promoting the idea of assimilate or perish. As Ms Granville said; “There are many ordinary Australians who do appreciate the relevance and rights of our indigenous people, their voices are swamped by those on both sides continuing the rhetoric of division, bigotry, separation.”
    Every now and then some facts come out that are reassuring.

    “Ninety-five per cent of the community support the right of First Nations people to have a say on matters affecting them. There was similar support (90%) for the statement that the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is important. That figure has increased marginally every survey since 2010.”

    “The reconciliation barometer survey asked respondents, for the first time, about truth-telling in order to “acknowledge the reality of Australia’s shared history”. The results showed 80% of people considered truth telling important.”

    “The chief executive officer of Reconciliation Australia, Karen Mundine, said more Australians than ever before felt a sense of pride for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
    Mundine said reconciliation groups, whose work has included promoting the need to truthfully present Australia’s history, were having a positive impact.
    “In welcoming these latest results, I must acknowledge the hard work undertaken by so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to share the incredible beauty and complexity of our cultures across this continent,” she said.
    Mundine said the next steps towards reconciliation include advancing issues raised in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and supporting the national representative body for Indigenous people, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.”
    Just one more instance of those in Canberra and their media cheer squad consigning themselves to irrelevance. To progress this, or any other issue, one must first start by ignoring the fools on the high security hill.
    In keeping with that thought and with due regard to Ms Lee’s suggestions;
    “I would like to make it the first Monday in September. Not attached to a date. A time to rejoice with the coming of spring.”
    “Perhaps that’s something the Voice to parliament could sort out – a name that doesn’t commemorate an event but moreso celebrates the cycle of life and the beginning of the warm weather, a name that we all could embrace that would be uniquely Australian.”
    The Indigenous Seasons from BoM would be a good starting point. Use a 40,000 year old calendar based on seasons and their different locations. Why does it have to be the same day everywhere? Why not more ‘localised’ celebrations based on relevant and local spring days?

    “The ability to link events in the natural world to a cycle that predicts seasonal changes is a key factor in the successful development of Indigenous communities. These natural barometers are not uniform across the land but instead use the reaction of plants and animals to gauge what is happening in the environment.”

    “For Australia Day, though, we need to consider our history and our values closely.”
    Indeed, we do. Thank you Dr Ewins and commenters. Take care

  14. paul walter

    You’re amazing Kyran- always a gold mine of ideas.
    Take care.

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