As often happens at this time of year, in the lead-up to January 26, commentators and activists raised the suggestion that Australia’s national day be moved to a different date.
Writing in the January 21 Sydney Morning Herald, Aboriginal MLA in the ACT legislative assembly Chris Bourke said: “Which nation celebrates its national day on the date it was invaded by a foreign power? … The answer, of course, is Australia.”
January 26 marks the day that Europeans arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788.
Aboriginal people around the continent — especially in the north — had been receiving visitors from abroad and engaging in trade long before then. But there was something different about Captain Cook and his mob. They weren’t here to trade, they were here to stay, to build a colony on behalf of the British Empire. Aboriginal people were in the way.
Each year on January 26, there is an outpouring of national pride and nationalism. Mainstream politicians spruik everything that is “great” about Australia.
But, while some may ignore or downplay the ugly side of Australia’s history, there is no escaping the facts: January 26 is the day Aboriginal dispossession began. It marks the beginning of a process of genocide, of land-grabbing, unpaid wages, and the smashing of traditional cultures to replace them with what we now know as Australia.
Is that worth celebrating? If so, it reveals something of the racism deeply embedded in Australia’s history.
In Darwin, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition marked January 26 with a screening of Murundak: Songs of Freedom. In Australia’s north, where colonisation happened much later, many Aboriginal clan groups have been able to hold onto some, if not all, or their land, languages and cultures. But these these languages still face the serious threat of extinction due to lack of government investment.
It is perhaps appropriate that in Darwin, January 26 is known as Survival Day, and that this year it was marked with a celebration through music of Aboriginal resistance.
For much has survived. Despite all explicit and implicit government attempts to the contrary, Aboriginal Australia remains proud and strong.
In Sydney, where the invasion began, the day is known as Invasion Day, and was marked with the Yabun festival. Hundreds attended the annual event, which is organised by the Gadigal Information Services.
In Hobart, up to 500 people rallied, calling for a new date for Australia Day. Renowned Aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell made the call while he addressed the protest: “What's lacking in the last 20 years is the marches that Aboriginal people used to have all around the country to express our dissent and disagreement with the way white Australia was treating Aborigines.”
Former Violent Femmes bass guitarist Brian Ritchie and secretary of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Trudy Maluga also spoke.
In Melbourne, historian and Aboriginal tent embassy veteran Gary Foley spoke at a smoking ceremony and march in Fitzroy St. Other communities held rallies, concerts and smoking ceremonies, including in Brisbane and Canberra.
But whether survival or invasion is the theme, if January 26 is to remain a significant date, it should be the day we formally acknowledge that this country was — and is — built on racism.
Australia is a wealthy country because resource-rich Aboriginal land was stolen; Aboriginal people were forced to work for little or no wages to establish a booming pastoral industry; rent was never paid and the Stolen Generations never compensated. No wonder the federal government can afford the hundreds of millions of dollars the racist Northern Territory intervention (now insultingly called “Stronger Futures”) is costing.
Bourke said: “We cannot change our history, as much as we might desire it. We cannot ignore our history, because it has made us. But we can change our future.”
Changing the date of the national celebration is an easy, important first step, but there is no indication the two big parties want to change Australia’s future, build something we could genuinely be proud of and celebrate.
Dispossession did not end — January 26 is not simply an historical anniversary, it is a painful and sobering reminder of the racism entrenched in mainstream Australian politics today.
Aboriginal people are imprisoned at some of the highest rates in the world. This is rising as a result of federal and territory government policies in the NT.
The health burden carried by Aboriginal Australians is shameful: in some communities, Aboriginal people are dying from diseases otherwise eradicated in this First World nation.
Aboriginal men and women die, respectively, 11.5 or 9.7 years younger than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
These appalling statistics, and many more like them, are deeply entwined with white Australia’s history: they are the result of what started in 1788 and continues today.
There is an alternative future, one that sees genuine engagement with Aboriginal communities – on their terms: treaties negotiated, reparations paid, original languages and cultures celebrated and protected. It is possible to imagine a future that brings true justice to Aboriginal people.
But it won’t come from a society that celebrates invasion and dispossession as its national day - and that won’t change unless we, the people with the alternative vision, make it happen.