What local councils do or don’t do on January 26 has burst into the national political debate, and what a good thing that is. No matter the frantic condemnation from the corporate media or the pompous and arse-about assertion by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that councils were “using a day that should unite Australians to divide Australians”.
These opponents of an honest examination of Australia’s history may want to shut down the conversation but the opposite has happened.
The corporate media shitstorm first tried to overturn the decision by the City of Fremantle to drop its Australia Day fireworks in favour of an inclusive concert featuring Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists on January 28. The federal government threatened to withdraw the council’s authority to hold citizenship ceremonies if they were also moved to January 28. The council decided to keep new citizens out of the crossfire and retained a low-key January 26 citizenship event.
However, this concession did nothing to temper the hysterics coming from the Murdoch and Seven-West media empires, which continued to attack the council and to personally ridicule and bully the Mayor, all the way through to January. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the “One Day in Fremantle” event was a smashing success, attended by more than 15,000 people.
The following Monday, the West Australian could not bring itself to print one word acknowledging this fact, far from it. Rather, these spiteful sooks, still desperate to prevent the contagion from spreading, ran an article on August 19 titled “Freo Alone on Australia Day”. The article crowed that no other local government in WA has yet decided to move events away from January 26, although some are in fact moving in that direction.
In this context the recent decisions by the Cities of Yarra and Darebin in Victoria to not mark Australia Day or to hold citizenship ceremonies on this date is a great development.
The declaration by Turnbull that he will strip them of the ability to hold citizenship ceremonies at any time of the year simply because they have resolved not to hold one on January 26, is not only absurd but desperate political overreach. Turnbull is dreaming if he thinks he can distract people from his government's failings and its attacks on our living conditions with his nationalistic huff and puff.
The debate raging in the US about the many statues in the South glorifying generals from the racist Confederate Army has had a welcome echo here too. Fremantle is marked by the intersection of the Stirling and Canning Highways.
Governor James Stirling was the architect of the Pinjarra Massacre. In 1834 he led a detachment of 25 soldiers, police and settlers against 80 Nyoongar people at Pinjarra, killing up to 30 of them. Alfred Canning chained up Aboriginal people and force fed them salt so they would lead him to their wells.
Cities, towns and landmarks across Australia bear the names of the people who carried out such atrocities.
On one level the Australia Day debate is just symbolic. Dropping the date, renaming roads and removing the most obnoxious statues by itself will not overcome Indigenous disadvantage that is rooted in the history of violent dispossession.
But an honest look at our history points towards the transformations of Australian society’s relationship to its Indigenous people that are necessary and just, whether recognition of sovereignty through a Treaty (or Treaties), real land rights that go beyond the limits of Native Title, reparations for stolen wages and the stolen generations, funding for bilingual education and so much more.
This is what underlies the furious rearguard fight to preserve the myths and denial of history by the corporate media. The possibility for example, no matter how faint, that a discussion about dispossession and land rights might in any way impinge on the future ability of mining companies to plunder the wealth of the land is serious matter for these defenders of the status quo.
This is why the January 26 debate is so difficult and problematic for ALP leader Bill Shorten.
How to appear progressive while still appealing to shallow nationalism? How to simply “change the date” and create the illusion of one big, smiling, happy-clappy Team Australia without asking the questions that go the heart of what this country is? Just as it was with equal marriage, the people will lead and Shorten will follow.
[Sam Wainwright is a Socialist Alliance councillor on Fremantle City Council in WA.]