Australia Day … next steps

Photo Credit: https://www.kingston.vic.gov.au/Places-and-Events/Council-Festivals-and-Events/Australia-Day-in-Kingston

How do we move ahead in our thinking about Australia Day, especially as the discussion seems quite divided and sometimes polarised?

Cricket Australia’s recent decision to refrain from using the term “Australia Day” was criticised by the Prime Minister, expressing his view that cricket was cricket and politics was politics, and the two should not be mixed. As if we suspend all political judgement when we enter the cricket ground, or jump onto the streaming service, or listen on the radio. Yeah, nah.

I thought the PM’s comments betrayed any real sensitivity to First Nations people, and many others like myself who are burdened by the tensions around Australia Day. So, not a great move, PM.

Australians want more. They want a deeper discussion of the things we seem to be avoiding in our national discourse.

Australians want a fair go for First Nations peoples – so issues of Black Deaths in Custody, Stolen Generations, poor health and education outcomes for First Nations peoples really matter to a majority of people.

Australians want to understand their history – warts and all. People do want to acknowledge and recognise what happened in the past – whether flowing from good motive or ill.

Despite everything that has happened and is happening, we really do want to be a nation of “a fair go”, we really do want all people to be given “a fair go”, and we will not be happy if some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our nation are left behind.

So, while we do need to look back to name and to acknowledge all that has happened, a better response to all the questions about Australia Day (including my own) is to look forward together.

a better response to all the questions about Australia Day is to look forward – together

We can do this by starting to listen to First Nations people about what we need to do to build a common future. We can listen to one another and wrestle with what we all need to do to repair our history of brokenness. We can weep together about injustice past and present, and with much hope build shared aspirations for the future.

And as a nation, we need to

  • Stop telling ‘the other party’ what they need to do
  • Stop imposing solutions that have not been mutually developed
  • Make political decisions, not because they’ll work well for the polls, but because they are the best way to serve people (for the ‘how’, see Dot Point 2, above)
  • Teach our children – with all the integrity and humility we can muster – the true history of colonial dispossession of First Nations peoples
  • Retain Australia Day – but also consider making Sorry Day a nationally approved Public Holiday
  • Develop a National Cabinet for Reconciliation. I’m not convinced this title is the best we can do, but I’m sticking with the “reconciliation” terminology because it’s so widely used. Either way, political and First Nations leaders need to develop policies that help us wrestle with the really big issues and lead us forward together. Federal and State Governments will need to work out their own responses, but this is doable. The only thing stopping us is a lack of political will. And where there is a will, there’s a way.

I love Australia, and I celebrate everything this nation has given me. I, along with my forbears, my children, my grandchildren have been nurtured and nourished beautifully by this nation. But I don’t think the same opportunities have been given to First Nations peoples. And that has to change.

So, look forward with me. Yearn for what can be. Think of what it needs to look like, and let’s start. Let’s have God change our heart.

There’s a powerful vision in Isaiah 58 where the prophet speaks of a context of devastation and horrifying injustice. The Lord calls his people to stop mere actions of faith (like worship), if worship and fasting is all that’s going on. When worship is joined with stopping injustice and putting things right, then the light of God’s people will shine like the day and their healing and restoration will appear. Things will start to be put right and to reflect God’s character of true goodness and grace. Right-ness will ‘have their back’. Instead of a wasteland, there will be a garden. Ancient ruins, broken down in the prophet’s eye, will be rebuilt. God’s people will be known as “Rebuilders” and “Restorers”.

That’s what we’re longing for, right? For trust, hope, love, grace, mercy and justice to be rekindled and rebuilt.

For my mind, that’s a pretty good thing to start longing for on Australia Day.

To do that, my family will be logging on to the #ChangeTheHeart webcast tonight. As we do, we’ll be praying that our good God will work in us all to rebuild, repair and restore what has been broken.

Should we celebrate Australia Day?

Our typical Australia Day pastime has included things like riding along the Wynnum (Qld) foreshore, or more recently in WA heading off to Coogee Beach. Plenty of people kicking back, having a BBQ or a picnic, enjoying the holiday. Whether or not there was any sense of thanksgiving for Australia, or any thought given to the landing of the First Fleet in Botany Bay in 1788 is another question.

Over recent years, questions have been raised about whether Australia Day is really a day for all Australians. Specifically, the First Nations peoples have resisted the celebration because it is actually the anniversary of the day their own lands were invaded and their own sovereignty ignored.

So the question is: what should we do?

  • Just continue celebrating Jan 26 as always and ignore the voice of the First Nations?
  • Forget about Australia Day completely, and ignore the incredible development Australia has seen over the last 232 years?
  • Find a date all Australians can celebrate – a date relevant to post-1788 Australians, as well as first peoples who have been here all along?

And to state the obvious: changing a word or two in the current national anthem is not going to help much. It is especially problematic that First Nations people were not even consulted about the value of the change. Once again, it seems like “our latest great idea” is simply announced as a fait accompli for First Nations people to be happy with.

The matter of Australia Day really goes to a wider question of what we’re to do with our own history. This question in particular has settled on me in recent years.

It just dawned on me one day. I was sitting on the rear deck of our (then) home in Success, WA, and I thought “I wonder which First Nations people used to call this area home?” Thankfully, the local Council acknowledged the Noongar people as traditional custodians of the land. But it was hard to find stories of what actually happened to those First Nations people.

It has been a similar story since moving to the NSW Central Coast. We know the Darkinjung people are the traditional custodians, and there are many still in the area. But what happened to the First Nations families when white settlers arrived? Was the interaction peaceful, or violent? I guess the Darkinjung Land Council have some stories, but that’s work I still need to do.

And you – if you’re reading this from Australia – what’s the story of the original custodians where you live? If they are there in diminished number, why is that? What happened? What is the history of settlement is in your area and what impact did it have on the First Nations custodians?

The more I have read historically verifiable accounts, the more troubled I have become about the circumstances of – for want of a better term – European occupation of the land we now call Australia.

Some would question the use of “occupied”, asserting the original nations of indigenous peoples were invaded, rather than occupied. Whatever term you use, it is clear that First Nations peoples were often subject to atrocious acts of violence and dispossession so dark that reading the accounts still today is a brutal and harrowing experience.

Many non-indigenous Australians probably believe the initial contact when the First Fleet arrived in 1788 was somewhat peaceable. Yet the raising of the Union Jack that claimed all lands for Great Britain’s King George was simultaneously a wilful rejection of the sovereignty of approximately 500 separate nations which already dwelt on those lands. These First Nations, both then and now, represent the oldest living culture on earth, having been in this land for some 65,000 years. Even so, their sovereignty has never been acknowledged. Australia’s constitution does not even recognise the existence of the First Nations. It is like they were never there.

No doubt, some would like it to stay that way, because the moment the First Nations are acknowledged, we must also acknowledge other realities, like:

  • The systematic dispossession of those First Nations. While the colonists saw themselves as “possessing” the land they began to occupy, first peoples believed the land possessed them in a profoundly spiritual way. So, this dispossession was like cutting away part of their soul. Like permanently separating a child from her mother. This pain is still carried by First Nations people today. This reality helps us understand their grief on Australia Day.
  • Complicating the matter further, colonists generally assumed that all First Nations were the same, and so it wouldn’t matter where they lived. For example, peoples from mainland Tasmania were rounded up during the 1830 Black Line policy and placed on Flinders Island. People from the Kimberly were captured and ejected from their lands and transported to Derby (see Banjo Woorunmurra and Howard Pedersen’s Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance). This dispossession and relocation was a common tactic employed by colonialists.
  • Hundreds of recorded massacres – some 350-400 accounts of six or more people killed in one action. These actions typically were one-sided actions where First Nations victims lacked any real self-defence. True: a dozen or so of these accounts represent attacks by first peoples upon Europeans, but these represent a mere 0.25% of the total number of recorded attacks. The reality is that almost all attacks were atrocious massacres of near defenceless First Nations peoples in their own traditional lands.
    • As I write this, there are press reports of another previously undocumented massacre in Campbell Town, Tas. A soldier writes how he witnessed ‘a bonfire of bodies’ and was sworn to secrecy so the guilty would escape justice.

There are other widely held views about pre 1788 First Nations which must now be exposed as false:

  • The myth that First Nations had no settled ‘villages’, culture or industry. See Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu for an engaging excursion into the highly developed – though obviously non-western – pre-1788 first peoples’ culture and agriculture.
  • The myth that First Nations people did not develop the land: see Bill Gammage The Biggest Estate on Earth for an impressive body of evidence recorded by European settlers and explorers as to the extent of First Nations’ land management. Gammage’s work revolutionises commonly held understandings of First Nations’ culture, and also exposes the gross ignorance of colonists who readily exploited forests and resources with no thought to management and sustainability.

There are and were policies and practises which continue to have a horrific effect on First Nations:

  • The Stolen Generations – where thousands of First Nations children were permanently separated from their parents. Even today, First Nations children are still removed from their parents in numbers far exceeding non-First Nations counterparts. Consequently, First Nations people continue to carry intergenerational trauma as a direct result of policies like these.
  • The Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody. The Commission’s report represents a significant work which uncovered grossly inadequate practices and entrenched racial prejudice. Since the Commission handed down its findings in 1991, a further 434 First Nations people have died in custody. Since 2008, half of the number of First Nations people who died custody had not even been convicted of a crime.

Then there are unacceptable realities which endure to this day. Inadequate policy that betrays ongoing injustices and prejudice:

  • First Nations peoples are per capita the most incarcerated people on the planet.
  • Health outcomes among First Nations people evidence huge disparities with non-indigenous Australians, especially in remote communities.

These are just some of the thoughts in the lead up to yet another Australia Day. They help me understand the many voices who see Australia Day as a day of mourning. They help me understand the sense of grief and mourning many First Nations people have toward celebrating Australia Day in its current form on January 26.

Of course, nothing we do can turn the clock back. But it’s also true that we cannot have any role in future of healing if we continue to deny the past.

As a follower of Jesus I cannot reconcile the occupation of this land, the dispossession of its first people, the atrocities perpetrated against them, the separation of children from their families, the woefully broken justice systems which have led to who knows how many deaths in custody, or the ongoing terrible health outcomes for First Nations with the life God calls us to in the Bible.

In the Scriptures, God specifically calls us to use our power, our wealth, our ingenuity and our opportunities to help others thrive. This is a core aspect of what it means to be human. It particularly settles upon us as a sacred responsibility toward those who have been victims of violent and unjust actions.

So, as Christians, and at the very least Australians, we must find a way to acknowledge what has actually happened in our own history.

The longer we leave this, the less able we will be to build a true national identity or find a future of true conciliation. I don’t believe there’s a future of blessing until by God’s grace, we come to terms with our past.

To start you off, why not spend your Australia Day, and a few days around it, finding out the First Nations stories of your locality. Typically, local First Nations cultural groups are more than happy to have discussions like this.

Consider:

  • What are your thoughts about Australia Day?
  • How do you intend to observe Australia Day?
  • What will our nation need to take into account in order to move forward into a truly shared future?