“When Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal People Talk, that’s a Problem for the Government”
“Mr Dungay, Ms Dhu, TJ Hickey. All these people were murdered – and the government did nothing!”
In Redfern, 26 January, Indigenous activist Gavin Stanbrook’s voice booms across The Block. Silence envelopes a pause in his speech, until someone among the thousands-strong crowd cries, “Disgrace!”
“Shame!” Gavin reciprocates. “Because they don’t care about Aboriginal lives. For them, they’re happy enough to wipe us under the rug.”
A Gumbaynggir man, Stanbrook is one of a few courageous speakers at Sydney’s Invasion Day 2018 rally, where he decries the state government’s response to Aboriginal deaths on behalf of the Walker family of the Bowraville Three.
The three names he cites – whose deaths are linked to police brutality – evoke a dark past, a darker present: the ceaseless failure of Australia’s leaders to end the injustices suffered by the black community.
Behind Stanbrook, the black-yellow-red stripes of the ‘Welcome to Redfern’ terrace mural pulse in the sun, while a million silver gum leaves shiver in the sky. Birds sing. Electricity runs through the crowd. This is an ‘Australia Day’ I haven’t yet experienced.
Divisive and politically fraught, Australia Day hosts the tension of our ‘founding’ history: 26 January marks the day that British colonists first raised the Union Jack in Sydney Cove, rendering Aboriginal people dispossessed.
The vastly varied beliefs about Australia’s history explain the heightened security in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday. They explain the Hottest 100s new date. They explain Julia Gillard’s missing shoe in Canberra, 2012.
Australia’s national identity crisis also explains why the former director of Ausflag, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, can’t foresee the removal of our flag’s Union Jack, a position backed by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
With all this in mind – a rally novice who’s spent plenty of #ausdays in the pool sinking tinnies – I can’t help but wonder what the fuck I’ve been doing pre-2018.
And therein lies the biggest question: What makes our choice of activity on 26 January so important?
Because, says activist Ken Canning of the grassroots movement Fighting In Resistance Equally (FIRE), which organised the rally, it’s a political statement.
“For us First Nations people, mobilising the cross-section of different peoples in our society in such large numbers is a huge political statement, which will eventually bite the government in the backside,” he tells me.
“When I was young, Australia Day was a non-issue. This whole nationalist public holiday thing was created by Howard and his racist ideology. It’s a purposeful attempt to divide the country and hide our history.”
Recently, in an article for Red Flag, Stanbrook wrote that “Nationalism is a cancer”.
I seek Ken’s opinion.
“Of course it is, everywhere. When you’re over-nationalistic, you don’t look at the other. You don’t look at what your country has done to other people. And that’s dangerous.”
Naturally, I also take to Facebook, asking why some people choose to celebrate Australia Day with little regard to race, and why others choose to rally.
One commenter highlights that drinking beers in the pool and acknowledging our black history aren’t always mutually exclusive.
“I think implying that anyone who celebrates Australia Day is a redneck or racist is a pretty broad brush,” he writes. “Many of us do deeply care about our wretched heritage, but we also choose to celebrate the many great things about Australia.”
While a good point to consider – despite my not mentioning the words ‘redneck’ or ‘racist’ – the question remains: why celebrate those great things on this day?
Another commenter questions the importance of the date altogether.
“… change one thing and they will simply find something else to be unhappy with or protest. We should be teaching people to change their perceptions rather than change dates … to suit the sensitive!”
Here, Stanbrook’s rally speech resounds in my head. “When they change [the date] I’m going be protesting then. And when they change it again I’m going to be protesting then!”
Evidently, while some people think changing the date would be over-inclusive, others consider the date irrelevant: the real issues are attitude and change.
Some people wish to retain Australia Day’s date not because, as another commenter points out, they’re terrible; but because they’re unaware.
“A few years ago I would have celebrated in the most disgraceful way possible,” she says. “Maybe those who still engage with Australia Day have not truly reflected on the implications of our country’s past?” asks another.
I’ve been there. As one commenter troll reminds me, I’ve been the girl with the Australia flag cape. No denials. But I’m learning. I’m changing what I do on 26 January. Alongside thousands of Australians, I’m hanging up the cape for good.
Ken says this will continue happening, because more and more people are questioning the rift created by institutions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.
“It’s terrific that people are getting behind Invasion Day because it acknowledges that it was invasion, not settlement,” Ken says.
“The government doesn’t want us talking. When Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are in the one space, with the one narrative, that’s a problem for them.”
“But the change that’s happening now will impact how governments will have to operate in the future.”
Despite resistance to changing the date, and the reasonable doubt that doing so will even produce tangible changes, Ken is feeling confident.
“The whole nationalist thing hasn’t been around forever, and it can be reversed. Four years ago, 200 people took to Sydney’s streets on Invasion Day. Yesterday, it was 100,000 around the country. That’s a big jump.”
“And it’s only going to get bigger.”
Photos by the author