Forget the symbol, change the situation

Australia Day came and with it the now familiar backlash. For some years now there have been many who have bitterly re-branded it Invasion Day. We, being the mainstream non-aboriginal society, celebrate this day as the first settlement of this country by our forebears and the beginning of all we see around us. What we see as settlement the aboriginal community sees as an invasion of their home, and an effective eviction from it.

For the first time that I can recall this year, there were suggestions that perhaps our national day should be shifted out of respect to this country’s aboriginal peoples. I happen to think Australia Day is pretty lame as a national day – Anzac Day resonates much stronger – but I’m uncertain that Australia Day should be changed.

I’m sympathetic to the aboriginal people. There’s no argument that they’ve been harshly dealt with by the society those first settlers began this place. Over many years they were subjected to terrible social and political injustice, from murder and dispossession, the stolen generation, treatment as second class citizens, as well as awful economic conditions. At best they were neglected, but at worst there was an active policy to exterminate them.

Over the last 25 years, there has been a movement to acknowledge that and redress some of the disadvantages. After finally being granted the right to vote in 1967, in more recent times we’ve had the historic occasion of the Mabo court case, and Kevin Rudd standing up to make a formal apology to the aboriginal people.

Last week a substantial speech by Stan Grant was brought to light in which he stood up and highlighted the historic racism of Australia towards the aboriginal people, of which he is one. Though it is historic, it also continues in many much smaller ways today, and often unconsciously. He spoke of the terrible disadvantage of being aboriginal in Australia, which continues to this day despite strides forward.

As a people, we have improved, but it remains an undisputed fact that there is no more disadvantaged group in Australia than the aborigines as a whole. It’s shocking to read some of the stats and find how far behind the rest of Australia they lag in terms of life expectancy, opportunity, and incarceration. It’s hardly any wonder that aborigines view our windfall as their calamity. What we claim to celebrate is the date from which their misfortune flows.

To shift Australia Day in recognition of that would be a generous and sympathetic act. What makes me uneasy is changing a date doesn’t change the reality, and it feels like an attempt to re-write history. It feels vaguely dishonest, too when, as an individual, I can’t apologise for being here. Cries to change the day are symptomatic of a bitterness that divides, rather than unites. It’s not the symbol, but the situation that has to change.

I struggle with the invasion day rhetoric also, which seems overblown. The day that Governor Phillip landed this was a land of disparate tribes of people. It was a vast land then – as now – sparsely settled. No matter which way you spin it, it was a land ripe for settlement and colonisation, and if it wasn’t the English, it would have been some other nation that did it. It’s not just the history of what happened, it’s how history works and, like it or not, the history of the world.

The pity and tragedy are what came of that. When the first fleet arrived it wasn’t intended as invasion, but settlement. Governor Phillip tried to reach out to the aboriginal people here, and in clumsy interactions connected with some. His successors mostly attempted to do the same, most particularly Macquarie. It was misguided and naive perhaps, and prone to the usual colonial missteps and arrogance.

I can understand how it might be viewed as an invasion by the descendants of those already here. Notwithstanding the official position there was violence and brutality visited upon the aboriginal people then and 150 years after by those less enlightened. 

I can deplore what has happened, and do – the dispossession, the terrible massacres, the disease, the countless years of discrimination, the shocking attitudes and racism, and the exploitation and abuse – all true. I can be sympathetic as a descendant of a white settler, but it would be a nonsense for me to deplore the fact of white settlement because I would not be here today otherwise.  

I can’t deny my own existence and apologise for it. That’s taking hand-wringing compassion too far. And while I acknowledge the terrible injustices done, I can’t turn a blind eye to the nation we’ve built. I’m not nearly as proud an Australian as I used to be, but we have achieved great things amongst the ill, made of this a great home and society, however flawed. If we deny our coming, we deny all white Australia has done.

I can’t do that, nor can I undo what is done, nor even seek forgiveness. I can admit the fault we carry and seek to make good now with the opportunity we have. We have done great things, but we have also perpetrated atrocities. We have built a society for ourselves that is rich and substantial, but we have left others out of it. We carved from this earth a place in the world for ourselves, but have desecrated the lands of others to do so. There is much we should be embarrassed about, and some worthy of our shame – but there is also much for us to be proud of.

Ultimately shifting the national day by itself is a cosmetic act that changes nothing and pleases few. While aboriginal people continue to struggle with some kind of oppression the day will remain a reminder of their misfortune, and so the only real and practical solution is to change their circumstances.

That takes awareness and will. The resistance towards Australia Day creates some awareness, as does speeches such as those by Stan Grant. The reality is though that most Australians, regardless of heritage, would be horrified to know of the true situation of the aboriginal people. I doubt there’s any real resistance to doing better, and doing more, except from the scattered rednecks and right-wing extremists out there. There is will in the people, but awareness is low because we don’t see it or taste it.

While it’s difficult, goodwill must be the starting point. Many feel neglected and forgotten and have been. The people of our first nations need to be brought into the fold and made part of the family. Fundamentally, the shift must mean we share equally of the nation. That’s equality of opportunity. That’s education, jobs, health, but also belonging. Their dispossession is as much spiritual – they are of this land, but not of this nation – as anything else. That needs to change.

Most Australians are ready and willing to share in what we have. We, the have’s, must open ourselves to what we don’t know. The aboriginal people need to find a voice to make themselves heard, and I suspect it’s the aboriginal role models who can play a big part in this. They can bridge the gap, giving voice to aboriginal aspiration as well as situation, and showing what is possible.

More than this I can’t say. As a white Australian I want to help, but don’t know how. It’s complex and difficult, but it can’t be let go because it’s too hard. Whatever it is, the truth is much deeper than a date on the calendar.

PS I’ll happily vote for a change of date if and when it records the day we become a republic.

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