Our country

Yesterday we experienced the spectacle once more of half the country celebrating the national day, while the other half deplored it. You’d have to be either daft or ignorant not to realise that something has to be done about it, and the simplest thing would be to change the date.

It seems counter-intuitive to me have to fireworks and celebrations on a day that is intended to unite us, but which instead divides us. I’m not as proud as I used to be, but I think there remains enough in our history and culture worthy of remembrance – but there has to be a better occasion to do it. I think Australia Day is pretty insipid as a memorial in any case – the day the first fleet arrived? Whoopy do. But there’s much more to it now.

I can understand the mixed feelings of our indigenous peoples. They call it invasion day, and while I don’t agree with the description, I’m sympathetic to the sentiment. January 26 marks the day when the first white colonisers arrived, disrupting a serene civilisation and setting off years of mistreatment and abuse. As a white Australian, there’s little to be proud of in our treatment of the first nations here. Outside of belated recognition through Mabo and a national apology (which many wouldn’t join), there’s been a long history of abuse and exploitation by white governments and colonisers towards the aboriginal people. That started on January 26, 1788, and so what is there to celebrate?

I’m sympathetic. I think it’s a no-brainer that the day should change. And I think we should be doing more to compensate for the ills done. But I worry about the national conversation – I wonder if by changing the date anything will be different.

Of course, it’s mere symbolism. It’s just a day, but it represents something. Changing it though won’t change history, and I wonder if it will do much towards changing minds or soothing angry breasts? We need a national conversation about this which avoids the rhetoric that dogs both sides of the argument.

On social media yesterday I noted many posting comments with links claiming this was aboriginal land #alwayswasalwayswillbe. It’s a cute and catchy slogan, for want of a better term, but you won’t see me posting it. No matter the justice of what’s happened before, history moves on, and the conversation shouldn’t be about your land or my land, but our country. We need a narrative that is inclusive, but it must be more than words.

I wonder how many people who post that hashtag consider what it would mean if our Koori brothers turned around and said, alright then, get out of here. That’s not going to happen (though clearly many would desire it), but what is the answer to that? Obviously, no-one’s going to leave, and it’s an easy catchword, a throwaway line that signifies brotherhood of a sort while promoting division, and is empty of real meaning. You might say that’s semantics, but as someone who likes to write I reckon words count. And I reckon if you say something you have to be prepared to back it up. I’m sick of cheap sloganeering.

As always, the noisiest on each side of the debate are at the extremes of it, where everything is black and white, good and evil. The middle 60% of Australia have hardly engaged in the discussion and see it as not much more than an irritation. They like their holiday. It’s an important day for migrants too, who see it as an occasion to mark new beginnings. Often times the most patriotic of us are those newest to the fold. It’s important to understand other perspectives, especially when we seek to shift them. Not much of that happens these days though – abuse and slogans have replaced debate.

For the conservatives and, by extension, the government, this is another opportunity to put their stamp on things (you only have to look at some of the awards handed to disgraceful people yesterday). They welcome the clash and noise because it allows them to perpetuate the culture wars and posture to the so-called ‘quiet Australians’ of their base. The divisive nature of this ‘debate’ plays into their hands, and they’ll twist it to their advantage. They’re in power and that lends them primacy.

Both sides are playing to their base when – on the left at least – they should be engaging with middle Australia. I think much of Australia is reasonable and if it is well explained to them, then they’ll happily consider other options. What won’t play well with them is being told what to do and how they should think. There’s too much ego in this discussion, as there is in pretty well any discussion worth having in this country. There’s no discipline anymore, or even real intelligence – just words, emotion.

As someone who wants change I find it frustrating. It’s like attending a high school debate and hearing the two sides go at each other with “is” and “isn’t”, with mounting emotion standing in place of reason.

I thik the date will change, but not while we have a conservative government. It won’t come easily for Labor either, but only because the politics are tough for them. What we need is a viable alternative and a conversation that recognises the wrongs done to our first nations, and explains why we need a change. For me, it’s obvious – our national day should be the day we become a republic. That won’t be straight away, but reckon it’ll be sooner than you think.

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