Fireworks versus truth, reconciliation and justice

September 1, 2016
Sam Wainwright, Fremantle councillor.

The Fremantle Council voted 10-1 to drop its annual Australia Day fireworks on August 24 in recognition of how sensitive this date is for many First Nations peoples.

It is worth restating the obvious: modern Australia, like Canada, the US, New Zealand and South Africa, began as a colonial-settler state founded on the violent dispossession of its Indigenous peoples. But Australia is the only one to hold its national day on the very date that marks the beginning of that dispossession.

It takes a special kind of wilful ignorance and callous disregard to not see why so many Indigenous people find this confronting. Frankly, it is stubborn racism to keep insisting that non-Indigenous Australians should decide whether or not Indigenous people should have a problem with the date.

Dropping the fireworks may only be a small symbolic step, but if we cannot have a discussion about dispossession we will never be able to tackle the underlying causes of disadvantage. The Don Dale youth detention disaster is but one example.

The furious reaction of the corporate media, among other critics, shows how much they don't want us to have that discussion. In the short term, there is no prospect that their howls of outrage about “political correctness gone mad” will overturn Fremantle Council's decision. But they sure as hell want to stop it from spreading.

Recent creation

Australia Day is a pretty recent creation. The name was adopted in 1935 and it was only in 1994 that all states and territories marked it with a public holiday. The 1988 bicentenary celebrations kickstarted the phenomenon of publicly funded concerts, fireworks, cricket matches and all the rest. The Fremantle fireworks have only been going for the past six years.

I can remember as a teenager joining the crowds on the foreshore to watch the flotilla of tall ships sail into Sydney Harbour in 1988. This was the official “culturally sensitive” event.

Radio station 2GB funded a rival re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet, recalling the 1938 show in which Aboriginal people from western NSW were press-ganged into playing the role of the Cadigal people retreating in the face of the Union Jack. Across town was the Invasion Day rally, one of the biggest protests in Sydney since the Vietnam Moratoriums.

This year, an informal discussion among Fremantle councillors quickly revealed that a majority of us were no longer happy with the fireworks. Why this new consensus? There's no one thing, but it reflects a growing realisation that January 26 cannot be made into a happy, inclusive day.

The decision has strong support in the local Nyoongar community, and their contributions during public question time at the council meetings where the issue was debated were very moving.

Herbert Bropho of the Swan Valley Nyungar Community described the sound of the fireworks as evoking the first musket shots to fell Indigenous people. Mervyn Eades, the managing director of the Ngalla Maya employment service, called on the City of Fremantle to set an example for councils around the country, as did young Nyoongar man William Collard. Joe Northover backed the decision and called for a memorial dedicated to Aboriginal lives lost in defence of their land.

Corina Abraham, who is leading a legal challenge to the Roe 8 Freeway, also spoke in support. She is a descendent of victims of the Pinjarra Massacre and people who were detained in Fremantle's historic Round House on their way to the Aboriginal death camp on Rottnest Island/Wadjemup.

The local flag-bearer for the fireworks has been the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce, in particular Ra Stewart. Her complaint is that there was insufficient consultation with local businesses that benefit from the visitors the fireworks attract.

While there is debate about just how much small businesses do benefit, the fact is that the City of Fremantle has increased the number and scope of festivals and similar events that attract people to the city all year round.

While the Chamber's official line of objection is around “consultation” and the supposed economic benefits, Stewart has vigorously intervened in the debate raging on social media.

On the Freo Massive Facebook page she said: “We've said sorry — I will say again I'm sorry for what our indigenous people have endured. I have the greatest respect for their culture, knowledge and wisdom and believe we can learn so much from them ... But I'm kinda ready to hear 'I forgive you' from our indigenous community and think that would be a wonderful thing for reconciliation.”

Historical denial

The notion that what's holding up reconciliation, both symbolic and practical, is a collective “I forgive you” by indigenous Australia is an example of the historical denial that is the very essence of the problem.

Predictably, the Murdoch press was outraged that we were “cancelling Australia Day”. Of course, the council is not doing that: everyone will still get their public holiday. We might also hold a free concert at the Fremantle Arts Centre with Indigenous artists and other activities instead of blowing more than $140,000 on fireworks in under half an hour.'s reach is pretty limited in WA but Seven West Media stepped in to assist. The Weekend West devoted a lot of space to attacking the council's decision, ranging from an editorial titled, “Well meaning councillors got it wrong with Freo fireworks”, to an idiotic cartoon suggesting that Christmas and Easter would be banned and that married heterosexual couples would be asked to maintain a low profile.

The cartoon is poisonous because there are people who think that middle-aged heterosexual white men are downtrodden. I have received messages from supporters of proto-fascist outfits, like Reclaim Australia, ranting about “Abos on welfare” and declaring they will “exterminate you traitors like insects” for interfering with the “tradition” of Australia Day. A video by the United Patriots Front threatened the Mayor with “illegal fireworks”.

The West ran a critical news article and a half-page opinion piece by Aboriginal MP Ben Wyatt, WA Labor's shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs and cousin of federal Liberal MP Ken Wyatt. He asserted the move would set back reconciliation because “it is the Aboriginal people who would wear the blame” for the decision.

Consider the defeatist logic of Wyatt's argument. If a local government, which is under no obligation to do anything for Australia Day, says that it no longer wants to organise fireworks because of sensitivities, it will only make other people unhappy, especially those who already have an unsympathetic view of Indigenous Australians.

Wyatt concedes that “January 26 highlights a deeply unsettling issue for modern Australia” but “we have not yet reached the commonality required to change the date”. He argues that society is not inclusive enough of Aboriginal people to have reached the consensus that would be required. He longs for “a historical point of reconciliation and transcendence from our colonial roots”.

But that is not what is happening.

Wyatt hasn't noticed that Seven West Media, the Murdoch Press and his opponents on the other side of parliament have absolutely no intention of “transcending our colonial roots”.

They will fiercely resist this every step of the way, just as they always have. How does Wyatt expect anything to change if no one makes the first move, or tries to advance the debate?
It's worth pointing out that many local Labor Party people have supported the decision to drop the fireworks, including one of my council colleagues.

Wyatt embodies the dilemma of the Labor leaders who want to appear progressive but do not want to be “wedged” by the Liberals for being “unpatriotic”.

Before the council vote, the Mayor and I met with Nyoongar elders Aunty Mingalie and Uncle Ben Taylor. They both gave their wholehearted support to the move. They were more worried about the backlash we would face than anything they would have to endure.

I guess they have seen a lot worse. Uncle Ben told us of his experience of the days when Aboriginal people in Fremantle were subject to a 6pm curfew, and how his own uncle was treated as a non-citizen after returning from service in World War II.

Given what they've been through, acknowledging our past and starting to act on it is the least non-Indigenous Australia can do.

[Sam Wainwright in a Councillor at the City of Fremantle and member of Socialist Alliance.]

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