‘We all still suffer from the life-draining, over-legislated madness called British Australia, which never seems to abate to the reason of sound voices or even democracy. Then they expect us to join in their triumphant dances over our ancestors’ graves each January 26′ (Phill Moncrieff, Aboriginal musician).
Last Australia day protesters from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy confronted Prime Minister Julia Gillard and liberal party leader Tony Abbott at a Canberra restaurant. In particular the protesters were responding to comments made by Abbott that the political foundations and presence of the Tent Embassy, established outside Old Parliament House 40 years ago, were no longer relevant. This event sparked a string of debates regarding Aboriginal politics and power, relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and sovereignty in Australia.
For many, Australia day brings these issues and the underlying tensions in Australian society to a head. There are many sides to the controversial debate giving rise to questions like: Should the day be celebrated? What does it mean to celebrate Australia Day?
The day is experienced very differently by different groups and communities. For some it is a day of patriotism and nationalism, a day to have pride in Australian culture and values. For others it is a reminder of a gruesome past. A past that brought genocide, the Stolen Generations and cultural and social chaos.
Walking past the Melbourne Aboriginal Youth Sports and Recreation Centre I see out the front a placard warning of the approaching ‘Invasion Day’ and what it means to local Aboriginal people. The few who were sitting near by the Centre in Gertrude Street were trying to send a message: Australia Day is not a day of celebration but a day to remember the pain of settlement and the long years that have followed.
The Australia Day website engages with this weighty issue. They say ‘Australia Day is an important annual opportunity to recognise the honoured place of Indigenous Australians in our nation’s history, and to promote understanding, respect and reconciliation’.
However, one of the problems with celebrating all things Australian is the symbolic meaning of the day: the raising of the flag by Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet commemorating the first European settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788. For Michael Mansell, legal director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Australia Day ‘celebrates the coming of one race at the expense of another’ (CreativeSpirits.com).
In an attempt to grapple with this history and make Australia Day more inclusive, the National Australia Day Council introduced Australia Day Dawn, ‘a moment of reflection before celebration’. But is this enough? Is Australia really doing itself justice by having this national day so closely tied to a past of racism and violence? The date and the history of Australia day does not reflect the social and political changes that have taken place since 1788, or the ways in which many Australian people have come to know and regret the price of our homeland. If reconciliation is really on the table then the inherent contradiction of Australia Day must be addressed.
First published in the Geelong Advertiser: