I don’t know if an opinion poll has ever been done, but a sizeable portion of Australians, perhaps a majority, recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had their land invaded by the British and experienced a systematic genocide.
The fact that this is widely recognised is reflected in the huge protests in response to threats to close remote Aboriginal communities and the response to Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance’s call-out for protests. Even back in 1988, there were 100,000 people protesting the so-called Bicentenary in Sydney.
But at official levels, politicians pander to the racist version of the history of Australia. There have been huge battles to win the protocol of official government functions having a Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country. But that’s where it stops.
Last year, an Indigenous man on the ABC’s Q&A asked opposition Leader Bill Shorten if he thought Australia had been invaded by the British. Shorten replied: “If I was an Aboriginal or Indigenous person, yes, I would.”
The invasion is historical fact, but Shorten only thinks it was an invasion if you are Aboriginal or Indigenous. Shorten was attacked by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for even this small concession.
When you look at the corporate media each year around Invasion Day on January 26, it’s like the psychological term “dissociation”. They can’t get away from recognition of some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events, but the main focus is the official version of Australia Day. There’s no genuine recognition of it as a Day of Mourning for the First Nations.
Among working-class people, opinion is divided. There is a layer, especially the older generation, who are in denial. It reminds me of when someone with an addiction is in denial. They recognise that some bad things were done, but are not willing to acknowledge the scale of what has taken place.
Working-class people take their cue from the education system, the media and politicians. My school education about the history of Australia was totally Anglo-centric. I thought education must be a lot better now, but recently I was told of a primary school in Melbourne that teaches children the traditional story of Captain Cook discovering Australia, but also shows the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. This is dissociation again. There is some acknowledgement, but no true reckoning with history.
It’s like a guilty secret. It was not until the early 1980s that academic texts about the Frontier Wars started appearing. Even in our popular film culture, there is little reflection on the Frontier Wars. We don’t even have an Australian equivalent of the US westerns, despite their racist limitations.
There is no excuse for this denial. There are more and more recordings of the oral history of First Nations people, combined with important work by historians.
After former Prime Minister John Howard’s history wars, where he trotted out right-wing historian Keith Windshuttle to dispute the genocide, the historians he criticised went back through their notes and found even more evidence of the genocide and devastation of the Frontier Wars.
The massacres and other atrocities of Australia's Frontier Wars are not ancient history, especially not if you are a descendant of the victims and the Australian state and most of society barely acknowledges the fact. The Coniston Massacre of 1928 in the Northern Territory is within living memory. It is significant for being the last officially sanctioned massacre. Mounted police killed between 60 and 110 people and all were acquitted of wrongdoing.
Massacre sites around the country are not marked, but there is a celebration of white “explorers”. First People’s sacred sites are not protected even to the same degree as cemeteries.
My grandparents’ generation had first-hand knowledge of these Frontier Wars. That explains why racism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is more explicit and crude in the areas where the wars between Blacks and whites occurred more recently. Racism is more explicit there because it was necessary to force white people to do terrible things to First Nations people.
When Moreland Council passed its motion to not recognise January 26 as Australia Day, I tried to dramatise the scale of what had happened in historical terms. In Australia, there is broad recognition of the genocide in Germany against Jewish people, although not the same recognition of the genocide against the Roma people.
So I said celebrating 26 January as Australia Day would be like celebrating the beginning of the holocaust as Germany Day. The next day the Australian asked me if I stood by those comments. I did stand by my comments because that is exactly what it was like. It was those comments that the racists and Turnbull tried to scandalise.
There is also a lack of recognition of intergenerational trauma. I wouldn’t say that I have a full understanding because this is an issue that is repressed in Australia.
Why deny history?
Why is the ruling class so opposed to recognition of our history? The right are fighting to preserve the myths and deny history.
They know the wealth of Australian corporations resulted from the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land. This is why they are so opposed to land rights that could impinge on the ability of mining companies to plunder the wealth of the land. It is ill-gotten gains.
The pastoral industry was built on slave labour. When the pastoralists were forced to pay some, but not equal, wages, Aboriginal people were driven off the stations and into encampments outside towns. Here, they were largely excluded from the workforce, except for the odd job as a contract livestock musterer.
There is even a lack of acknowledgement of Australia’s own Pacific slave trade, where people were kidnapped from island nations like Vanuatu and brought to work as indentured labourers in the sugarcane fields.
The acknowledgement of genocide is political. The ruling class allows us to recognise some genocides, but not others. For example, they support the fight to acknowledge the genocide against the Armenians by Turkey a century ago. But they refuse to recognise the genocide in Sri Lanka against the Tamils and the genocide in Myanmar against the Rohingya that is taking place right now with Australian support.
One positive thing that has happened recently is the campaign for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander freedom fighters Tunnerminerwait and Maulboyheener in Melbourne. It is scandalous that the memorial to them is the only memorial to First People’s freedom fighters in any major Australian capital city.
I have been asked what date Australia Day should be. Frankly, I cannot think of a suitable alternative date. But I do know that January 26 should be officially recognised as a Day of Mourning.
There are dates that deserve more celebration, such as the Eureka Stockade, the winning of the 8-hour day and the victorious anti-conscription referendums. But I don’t think you could celebrate Australia Day on any day other than the day of a genuine Treaty being signed.
On one level the Australia Day debate is just symbolic. Dropping the date, renaming roads and removing the most obnoxious statues by themselves will not overcome the Indigenous disadvantage that is rooted in the history of violent dispossession.
But we can use the campaign to change the date of Australia Day as a jumping-off point to fight for historical truth and the genuine recognition of the scale of dispossession and genocide and the impact on current generations.
An honest look at our history points towards the transformations of Australian society’s relationship to its Indigenous people that are necessary and just, including 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.
[Sue Bolton is a Socialist Alliance councillor on Moreland City Council. This is based on a presentation she gave at a Green Left Weekly hosted No Pride in Genocide forum in Melbourne on October 21.]