This week we’ve had the unfortunate spectacle of a couple of Melbourne inner-city councils deciding not to celebrate Australia Day because of the offense done to the indigenous of Australia, supposedly commemorated by that day. In response, the federal government has repealed those councils rights to citizenship ceremonies. Naturally, there has been much controversy and comment as a result.
I wish this wasn’t the case. I understand the argument put by the councils, though I don’t entirely agree. I’m sympathetic to a government who wants to maintain the integrity of our national day, though believe they’ve been typically heavy-handed. Above all, I wish this debate could have been conducted in an intelligent and thoughtful way, which is now impossible, as it probably always was. All of this makes it unfortunate. It can’t end well.
I understand why the councils have made this decision. Disquiet over Australia Day has been brewing for years, which is also known as Invasion Day by those who oppose it, which explains the rift. On the one side you have the conventional, traditional and officially endorsed view that Australia Day celebrates the founding of the nation, the day the first fleet sailed into Botany Bay. The contrary view is that this is the day the indigenous peoples were dispossessed of their land by white ‘invaders’.
I can understand both perspectives, and if it was left to me would happily shift our national day to another date. The day itself means more to me in popular culture than it does historically. It’s a day of barbecues and citizenship ceremonies and cricket. It’s a happy day when you look at it like that, which is the symbolic. I don’t think much about the historical significance of the day, and the fact that it marks the day when some leaky ships turned up is a matter of general indifference to me. What has happened in the last 20 years is that it has become less symbolic and more literal. As such I can perfectly understand the cultural insensitivity of the day.
Having said that, I think there is a lot of simplistic groupthink in those who choose to oppose the day. That local councils choose to embrace that groupthink is no surprise given the historical mediocrity of said administrators. Ultimately it’s more about appearance than it is about action.
I liken it in my mind to two rival families bidding at auction for a property. Inevitably one family will be successful and the other will miss out. Australia Day in a way is a celebration of the winning bid, but in so doing offends the losers.
Most of us are reasonable people. We might be thrilled to have the winning bid, but know better than to celebrate in the faces of the losers. This is what Australia Day does, however.
Now, of course, the indigenous will say, well wait a minute, that was our house! That’s the crux of their argument, and hence what has been historically viewed as a settlement is in Aboriginal eyes an invasion. And this is what the councils are supporting in their refusal to support the day.
Personally, I find this semantically tricky territory. I don’t think it’s as simple as a black ‘nation’ being invaded by a white people, but I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole today. And as a white person of Anglo-Saxon stock living in Australia, it is problematic and complex regardless. The very people who decry the day would not exist if that day had never happened. I would not exist. I may be sympathetic to those indigenous who see January 26 as a commemoration of dispossession, but as someone who has a personal stake in the historical record I’m glad it happened, and it would be hypocrisy to claim otherwise.
This is one reason I feel this is a simple-minded, feel-good gesture by the councils involved. This is a conversation we had to have, but this is not the way to have it. Ideally, this conversation should come from the top down. Our government should engage with this, in the same way it should engage with notions of republicanism. This, of course, is unlikely, even impossible in the current environment, but there was a time when it was a part of the zeitgeist, and it will be again.
Unfortunately, the government has doubled down on this issue with their punitive actions against the councils concerned. It’s pathetic really, and unedifying on all sides.
What we need is a national day that is inclusive of all. We know Australia Day is not. It’s a big leap for an Australian government to make that change, but it must and will happen, later if not sooner. My preference is that our national day is the day we declare ourselves a republic finally.
That’s a truly inclusive event, for all Australians, regardless of background or colour. Forget the posturing. This house is big enough for all of us to live in.