Practical change, not symbolic violence

English: Invasion Day protest at the Aborigina...

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Australia Day this year was host to some serious controversy and provocative images. I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of what happened in Canberra on Thursday, but I do want to address the aftermath.

After Gillard and Abbott were bailed up by aboriginal protesters the images were beamed around the world and editorial writers from all over sharpened their pencils and got to work. There’s been much comment, not a little vitriol, and ongoing speculation about what it all means – including some calls that Australia Day should be changed.

I’m broadly sympathetic to the aboriginal cause. I’m not sure exactly what their tent embassy in Canberra continues to achieve, but I’m quite happy to let them to continue if that’s their desire (which, to be fair, is the point Abbott was making I think). I don’t think they did themselves any favours though when they besieged the prime minister and the opposition leader in a Canberra restaurant while they were going about their Australia Day duties. I’m not a fan of either of them, but I reckon there’s no-one who deserves to be endangered while going about their duties. It was an ugly look and politically stupid by the aboriginal folk protesting (an opinion shared by the aboriginal elders). However, it’s done.

Yesterday we saw footage of the same folk marching on parliament house and setting fire to Australian flags on the steps of it. I know there are a lot of people out there who just about burst a jugular at the thought of the national flag being set alight. I’m not one of them. End of the day it’s a bit of coloured cloth, and given we’re a democracy people are entitled to express their views as long as it harms no-one. Still, it’s not a good look, and another example of bad judgement. Whether a flag is burnt or not the facts remain; what changes are people’s opinions, and it’s those opinions they should be working to win. Unfortunately I reckon they’ve now lost a lot of goodwill, which the more measured representatives of the Koori movement would be seething at. Those on the border may well have decided they can’t support such ratbags, and others would feel – reasonably I think – that by disrespecting the flag you’re disrespecting the people who live under it.

I can cop all of that with little more than a weary and disappointed sigh. When I see children though urged to spit on the flag and take a match to it I get pretty uncomfortable. I hate it how children are used in such a blatantly political manner. For a start they’re children, they should not be involved in this. Children should be children, should be kept away from confrontation and exploitation. It’s a disgrace their parents allowed it. It’s wrong too because they have had a violent opinion shoved down their throat without the benefit of consideration. I know it’s an utopian view in a world of fundamentalist religion and extreme political views, but I believe that children should be allowed to form their own opinions in their own time.

In any case, much of this has been a sad and misguided episode in which few people come out looking good.

There are now calls that Australia Day should be shifted or changed, that we should be more considerate of the aboriginals who were here before us and stop celebrating ‘invasion’ day as they like to call it.

I spent a lot of this morning thinking and talking about this. Australia Day doesn’t mean a huge amount to me. Spiritually I think Anzac day is a much more important day to most Australians. It certainly is for me. Australia Day by contrast is a very pleasant and mildly celebratory day. We have a barbie maybe with friends, we watch the cricket and tennis on telly, a few eminent Australians get awards, and a couple of fireworks go off. I don’t really think it should be much more than that. Though Howard – who is responsible for more bad than good – tried to turn Australia Day into flag-waving celebration of national achievement, I don’t think it’s really in the Aussie psyche. We’re laid-back about such things, traditionally at least, and thank God for that. Not for us the hand on the heart treacly exceptionalism which so mars American society. We’re good onya mate, cheers. So, Australia Day is a pleasant day – can it be changed?

I would be very upset if it was. I have one message for those who call for it and each Australia Day find cause to protest: get over it. Though the date commemorates the arrival of the first fleet – a notable day in Australian history, and the day the Australian nation as we know it was born – what we really celebrate is who we are now, and how far we’ve come. Unfortunately some things we can’t celebrate as we should, because we have failed, which is the real issue here.

For generations we – white Australia – have let down our Koori brothers. We still do. There have been great moments when important and symbolic breakthroughs occurred – the Mabo case, national sorry day, and so on. In between times though there has been backsliding. The great steps forward under Hawke and Keating were undone by that arch prick John Howard. The respect Rudd showed in acknowledging the wrongs done to the aboriginal nation has been largely negated since by the political apathy of Gillard. In practical terms progress has been slow and difficult, and hard to measure. In many places around Australia aboriginal people live in third world squalor and are treated as second class citizens. It is a blight on the nation, and good reason for the outrage of so many – white as well as black. This must change.

I say get over it because history is not going to change, and the ships that landed here in 1788 are not going to land somewhere else. It may concentrate the mind and give a rallying point for dissent, but it is hardly the issue. Forget about that and let’s look at what good we can do now. Despite the violence, there are many people of goodwill and energy wanting to make a difference. We – white Australia – need to show we care, and the government that represents us needs more importantly to act. If anything good is to come out of these few days perhaps that might be it – spotlight the inequities and give the impetus for something to be done about it. Don’t fuck it up though – we need to work together, and violence will only draw us apart.