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?

2 thoughts on “Should we celebrate Australia Day?

  1. Thanks for writing this really important piece Dave – you have summed up so well why I also am no longer willing to participate in January 26 as a day for all Australians to celebrate – because it just isn’t. For perhaps the first time I feel deeply sad and grieved as January 26 2021 approaches. I am looking for ways to stand with our indigenous brothers and sisters in their grief and mourning and to try to find a truthful way to embrace our history with repentance, courage and hope.

    • Yes, thanks Jenny for your thoughts. Somehow, I’m hoping we can push past the “Australia Day is for all Australians” thing, because as you say, it’s clearly not something loved by all Australians. I love the idea of rebuilding what is broken from Is 58, and trust that with humility and honesty we can find a celebration *of one another* that will build a better Australia moving forward.

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