January 26: a day for Aussies to celebrate or mourn?
Sydney Harbour and the Opera House on Australia Day / Phil Whitehouse, flickr
Like me, you may have noticed the calls growing louder each year to change the date of Australia Day—or even abolish it altogether. On the weekend, for example, Greens leader Richard De Natale tweeted:
Today is not a day of celebration. For First Nations people it is #InvasionDay, a day of mourning and a yearly reminder of ongoing oppression, murder, and systemic racism.
We need a day we can celebrate together. But first we need to tell the truth. #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe pic.twitter.com/wZM2NxAcUj — Richard Di Natale (@RichardDiNatale) January 25, 2020
A year ago, I shared an article that suggested keeping the date as it is, an article that painted Australia Day in a positive light. I was quickly shouted down by many people upset that I had a different opinion to theirs—one, by the way, that I happen to share with the majority of Australians.
There is no question that appalling injustices were committed against indigenous Australians. Massacres tore communities apart, land was taken without treaty, and many Aboriginal languages and cultural practices were lost as a result of European settlement.
2008 was far too late, but in that year, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally made a formal apology to our First Nations peoples for all they had collectively endured since the First Fleet arrived.
Regardless of race, any Aussie with a heart who reflects on the dark events of our nation’s past will feel deep shame for what was done, and deep compassion for those who suffered. But with all this in mind, I believe that the tone of the “change the date” debate is unhelpful.
No one is celebrating oppression
January 26, 1788 is the date that Governor Phillip raised the Union Jack in Sydney Cove to claim the patch of land there as a British colony. Only decades later, in 1808, did immigrants begin marking it as a date of significance.
It was much later still, in 1946, that the state and Commonwealth governments agreed to celebrate Australia Day nationally on January 26. Exactly three years later, Australian citizenship was created with the Nationality and Citizenship Act.
Since that time, people of every race—our indigenous brothers and sisters included—have no longer been regarded as British subjects, but instead as proud Australians. Citizenship ceremonies are still a big part of Australia Day celebrations each year, with over 16,000 becoming citizens again in 2020.
In other words, Australia Day is intended to celebrate what unifies us, not what divides us. We gather at barbecues and beaches and parades and fireworks displays to celebrate the best of Australia, not our worst. As Warwick Marsh points out on the Canberra Declaration blog, we really are so fortunate to be living in a country as blessed as ours.
I empathise with any indigenous Australians who connect this date symbolically with “white invasion”. But to any who feel this way, I would simply plead that that’s not what is being celebrated by anyone on January 26.
There’s no way that 78 percent of Australians who are proud to celebrate Australia Day on its current date are racists. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, it’s only fair to assume that the vast majority of them simply love this country—and all of the great peoples and cultures that make our nation what it is today.
We can’t turn back the clock
As much as we can wish that Australia’s past was different, we can’t turn back the clock. The best we can do is learn from the past and strive for a better future.
To move forward, we have to recognise that the guilty are no longer with us. Those who perpetrated heinous crimes against Aboriginal communities died a long time ago.
The 2008 apology was powerful and important because it came from the same government that allowed and committed earlier evils. But it simply isn’t fair to think or act as though the descendants of Europeans today are responsible for their ancestors’ sins.
There are many Australians who have mixed indigenous and non-indigenous heritage, like Alice Springs councillor Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Pointedly, she asks whether half of her is expected to apologise to the other half of her for such past misdeeds. Her point is that it just doesn’t make sense to keep bringing the sins of those who are gone into the present.
In a similar way, the “Invasion Day” name is helpful in getting Australians to reflect on our nation’s history. But as author Stephen Chavura asks, how many of those who use such hashtags are willing to sign their house and land over to their local historic indigenous tribe? “Virtue signalling” is a true risk in a debate like this one.
If you tweet #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe please sign your house and land over to your local historic indigenous tribe. By your own words as long as you don’t give it back you’re stealing from indigenous Australians and no better than the original invaders. #talkischeap — Stephen Chavura (@ChavuraStephen) January 25, 2020
We can’t unscramble the egg that is Australia. How would all of the people who now inhabit Australia return to their lands of origin? We are who we are today because of countless events, large and small, ancient and recent, just and unjust. Wouldn’t we do better to aim for harmony and mutual respect in the present than dissecting the events of the past?
Forgiveness is the only way forward
Doubtless, there are Australians who are yet to reckon with Australia’s dark chapters. Indeed, all of us do well to educate and remind ourselves about those past injustices.
But we also have to ask how we can best move forward as a united Australia. Jacinta Price, whom I mentioned earlier, suggests that Forgiveness Day is a sensible response to Sorry Day. Anderson George is another indigenous Aussie who loves the idea of a Forgiveness Day. He says, “You can’t forget, but you can forgive.”
The great thing about forgiveness is that everyone benefits from it, not just the person who was in the wrong. As the saying goes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then realise that the prisoner was you.” I admire Australians like Price and George who have discovered this for themselves and want to spread this message with others.
Even if the date of Australia Day was changed, forgiveness would still be needed as we reckon with our nation’s past. Many groups have hurt each other through the centuries. All of us have things to apologise to other Australians for, and all of us need forgiveness. Without this, we can’t have reconciliation.
This is a message we know deep down as Aussies because of the teachings of Jesus that have so profoundly shaped our culture. He showed us what true forgiveness and reconciliation looks like, and he still provides the power for this today.
Australia is an amazing country. Parts of our past are shameful, but that is not who we are today. There is so much that unites us. Our mateship and diversity and ability to survive and overcome the past truly makes us a nation worth celebrating.
Kurt Mahlburg is a teacher and freelance writer, writing for the Canberra Declaration and occasionally for the Spectator Australia. He also blogs at kurtmahlburg.blog. This article has been republished with permission from the blog of the Canberra Declaration.
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