We Need to Talk About “Australia” Day
Four years ago, I attended my last Australia Day party. I wore an Aboriginal flag t-shirt and, upon arrival, was immediately accosted by a guest. “You’re so disrespectful,” he sneered. “That’s not what Australia Day is about. You don’t need to bring that shit up today.”
Actually, I did. Because today, of all days, that “shit” is exactly what needs to be brought up, acknowledged and discussed.
I grew up on the Gold Coast – a relatively insular and politically conservative city considering its population. I didn’t meet an Aboriginal person until I was 19. I can guarantee that many of my friends back home still haven’t.
Where I’m from, celebrating Australia Day on the 26th of January is still the norm. In fact, anyone who thinks that date should be spent doing anything other than celebrating is lambasted by the mayor, a man who was last year re-elected for a second term with a 73 per cent majority vote.
When Tate’s inflammatory post was met with attempts to engage him in real discussion, he refused to address any of the issues brought up. He dismissed arguments with blanket statements, and claimed that the opinions of Aboriginal Australians – a “segment of the community” – do no matter when weighed up against “all Aussie’s opinions”.
Tate also posted a screenshot of the same tabloid newspaper article whenever someone accused him of failing to acknowledging Indigenous perspectives. The screenshot appears in the thread more than 50 times, and was cherry-picked by Tate to support his claim that all Australians are “pretty united” in wanting to celebrate January 26.
According to the piece, which came from Queensland’s Sunday Mail, Witiyana Marika of the Rirratjingu clan said, “When I was a band member of Yothu Yindi, I used to think that the whole of Australia shouldn’t celebrate Australia Day. Now I’m 55, and this thing is going to go forever.” He is then reported as conceding that his people “may as well … walk together.” This involves the Rirratjingu people inviting doctors, nurses, police and teachers to their remote northeast Arnhem Land community in order to acknowledge their professionalism.
But does this really prove that a whole nation of people is keen to commemorate white settlement?
Zeppelin Hamilton, a proud Wiradjuri man from NSW, doesn’t think so.
“Invasion day now, and forever, will be a dark day for my people,” Zeppelin told me when I asked if he shared Mayor Tom Tate’s sentiments. “It stands for everything, past to present, that is wrong with Australia’s treatment of First Nation people. It stands for murder; it stands for rape. Both wilfully and ignorantly celebrated by the masses, it is an annual reminder of the racist conditioning around me.”
“We can’t celebrate the day ourselves,” A.B Original rapper Adam Briggs, a Yorta Yorta man from Victoria, told the triple j Annual in October last year. “Even when I got in the triple j 2014 Hottest 100 for ‘Bad Apples’, I wasn’t even listening. I only found out ’cause my mate text me and said ‘You’re number 87.’”
Let’s be honest: most non-Indigenous Aussies who acknowledge Australia Day don’t even know what the date signifies. January 26 does not mark an anniversary of any cause of national pride. It doesn’t mark the birth of the esky, nor the first-brewed VB, nor the first time someone realised wheelie bins make great wickets. It doesn’t even mark the day we became a nation – that happened on January 1 at the turn of the 20th century.
Instead, the 26th of January marks the number of years it’s been since 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip claimed for Britain a land that was already owned. For many, it is therefore a difficult day of mourning and reflection on past wrongs: the beginning of a massacre, of ethnic cleansing, of genocide; the beginning of the undoing of one of the world’s oldest cultures.
But it is also a day to celebrate the fact that despite colonisation, despite discrimination, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to survive.
And yes – there might well be a few angry people burning the Australian flag today. It’s a statement showing that they reject what, to some, has become a symbol of colonial oppression. Though desecrating the flag has officially been decried by the leader of the “Greenies” Tate referred to, it’s not illegal in Australia to do so, and various attempts to criminalise the act have failed. It’s offensive, sure, but it begs the question: is burning a piece of merchandise most likely made in China really more outrageous than celebrating Australia Day the same date as the invasion?
For a large majority of Australians, the impact of changing the date of our national day is nil. We wouldn’t be giving up our right to be patriotic or to take pride in our national achievements, nor would we be surrendering a tradition – we’d just be shifting the public holiday to a day that isn’t grossly offensive to our first people. Plus, we’ve only been granted a day off on January 26 since 1994, and when you pit a 23-year-old public holiday against 50,000 years of land ownership, arguing that “it’s tradition” feels a bit weak.
Fremantle in WA cancelled all its Australia Day celebrations this year, and is instead hosting culturally inclusive festivities in two days’ time. Last time I checked, no BBQs had exploded as a result of this date change, and none of Freo’s residents had lost their ability to recite Powderfinger lyrics on cue.
What the Mayor of Fremantle gets, and what an increasing number of non-Indigenous Australians are starting to get, is that to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, moving the date of Australia Day means a whole bloody lot. It means a show of solidarity, progress towards reconciliation and a step away from the narrative that Australia was discovered, settled and bettered by white people. And contrary to Tate’s belief, their opinion is really all that matters.
So today, don’t be part of the masses who commemorate 229 years of dispossession by throwing or attending an in-poor-taste party. Sure, most people want a day to celebrate the land they call home, but it should be one all Australians can get behind – not just descendants of white settlers. And as Zeppelin pointed out, “You have 364 other days to be grateful for living in this country; we ask for one to have our voices truly heard and the response is truly sickening. If you do not understand, you are part of the problem.”
We may not be able to change the past, but we sure as hell can change the future.
Cover via Buzzfeed