The change that must come

Yesterday was – depending on who you spoke to – either Australia Day or Invasion Day. Me, I’m not calling it anything, as both labels have such negative connotations these days. Much like Cricket Australia, I think of it as January 26.

Every year we have these bitter debates over the date. Every year there are protests on the one side, while on the other, rabid fringes seek to inflame tensions further. It’s an ugly, combustible mix that can’t continue. That it’s notionally our national day is an absurdity – how can you have a national day that so bitterly divides its people? It must change, if only for common sense.

Many Australians now recognise this fact, not only those on the progressive left and our First Nations people but also others, too, of moderate and sensible persuasion. For many, this is a political battle; for others, it’s just about what is right.

It’s inevitable the date will change, to what and when is the question. Too what is hard to say. I’d like to say the date that commemorates us becoming a republic – but as that hasn’t happened yet, who knows? As to when I’m pretty comfortable in saying it won’t be while the LNP is in power.

Changing the date would be a positive step, but if there’s one thing this whole conflict has highlighted, it will take much more than that to heal our society. Clearly, there’s some deep-seated antagonism and trauma. That’s what must be addressed – we must seek to redress and heal. The first step is acknowledging the damage and injustice done, then positive and active steps in becoming a more inclusive society.

We actually started on that path nearly 30 years ago. Mabo was a big moment in Australia’s history and should have marked the moment we started to come together truly as one people. It was an act of good faith and justice, and for a while, it felt as if the wounds might begin to knit – and then John Howard came along.

When Howard was ousted as PM, there was another moment of reconciliation when Kevin Rudd issued his apology for the wrongs done to this country’s original inhabitants. But then, Labor was swept from office, and all of that (as well as decent climate policy) was forgotten and/or discredited by the Luddite government of Tony Abbott.

There’s no doubt that the LNP has had a destructive influence on this country’s cultural life. If we were but a little smarter we might feel shame at that – we might even do something about it. Hopes for that are diminishing, however. If we were a little smarter, we would never have permitted it in the first place.

There’s no doubt the ‘culture wars’ continue. The honours awarded to Margaret Court yesterday represent a fresh offensive by the arch-conservatives looking to make a political point. There’s no way that the date will change while the LNP remains in power, and no possibility of any meaningful reconciliation, because – they don’t care.

The good news is that more and more Australians on the ground do. There’s widespread condemnation at the decision to further elevate Court, a vocal bigot (though once, in ancient history, a great tennis player). No-one I know believes that Australia Day should remain on January 26 (though I move in more elevated circles). There’s widespread recognition and understanding, even compassion. For the rest, it makes pragmatic sense.

Personally, I’d be happy to avoid this annual debate around an occasion which should be celebratory. Quite obviously, our national day should embrace all Australians.

As it happens, I saw a movie yesterday that highlights the divide.

High Ground is a new Australian movie, and it’s excellent. It’s set in Arnhem Land in the period after WW1. It starts with a massacre of a tribe of aboriginals by white farmers (and unwilling police) by the side of a billabong. Nothing is done about it. A dozen years later, a cop who was present and disgusted by what he saw is asked to track down a rogue pack of aboriginals who have been raiding settlements. He’s a marksman, and the implicit instruction is that they should be wiped out.

The rogue pack is led by a survivor of that initial attack. The marksman sets out with a young survivor by his side. The marksman is sympathetic and has no intention of killing anyone. I’ll leave the details of the story there. Suffice to say that while the landscapes depicted are often breathtaking, this is a bleak and sometimes depressing tale that seems familiar. As a white man in the audience, I found it confronting, but beyond understanding.

There’s tension throughout because you fear the worst and hope it won’t come to be. Of course, there’s a reckoning, the upshot of which is that there are no winners. It seems a true commentary in general, and true of the fracas over Australia Day.

These things happened. This is history, more or less, and many of the attitudes portrayed true of the times – and true for many now also, I suspect.

We can’t go on living as a society like this. Great wrongs have been committed. We bear responsibility for that. As time goes by, the wounds become deeper because those with the power to do something about this, do nothing. A treaty would be a great start, but it’ll take more than that, and years still until we can truly feel one people.

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