We need honesty, not self-indulgent patriotism

Byron Mayor Simon Richardson said that as “celebrating the arrival of Europeans causes grief for many people”, his council had decided to move the date for Australia Day ceremony to the night before.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made a disingenuous pitch for “unity” and “honesty” in response to Byron Bay Council’s decision on September 20 not to celebrate Australia Day, in deference to the hurt it engenders to Indigenous peoples.

Byron decided to join the growing number of councils that, by their actions, are helping to push the national discussion over Indigenous dispossession by British colonisers.

Perhaps unwittingly, they are also encouraging a national discussion about the sorts of actions that need to be taken to end ongoing paternalism.

Morrison began by deriding Byron Bay Council’s decision — to move the Australia Day ceremony a day forward — as “indulgent self-loathing”. This was a deliberate choice of words to rustle up jingoism.

Following the recent anthem protest by 9-year-old Harper Nielsen, perhaps Morrison’s outburst is not surprising.

The next day he announced that a new public holiday could be created for Indigenous people, but that Australia Day would remain. This prompted @IndigenousX founder Luke Pearson to tweet in response: “Wait, did our latest PM really suggest we have a White Australia Day and a Black Australia Day? In an effort to be inclusive? Really?”

Byron Bay is just the latest local council to go in this direction, inspired by Fremantle Council that started this national discussion by declaring at the end of 2016 that January 26 was not a day of celebration for Aboriginal Australians.

Byron Mayor Simon Richardson echoed this sentiment, saying that as “celebrating the arrival of Europeans causes grief for many people”, his council had decided to move the date for Australia Day ceremony to the night before.

Morrison launched a tirade against Byron Bay, as his predecessors had done, and stripped it of its power to award citizenship certificates.

Byron Bay Council had only moved the celebration forward by a day, but the symbolism was what provoked Morrison. At the same time, he demanded that the nation “be honest about the past”.

While there are a range of views about what should or should not happen on January 26, the important thing is that a national discussion has been started by local elected governments that continues to be a thorn in the side of federal politicians.

As more information is being uncovered about the scale of colonial massacres and the extreme brutality of British colonial conquest, this discussion has to be extended and deepened across communities for it to lead to any restorative action. 

While the shameful bipartisan consensus that patriotism trumps history continues, Australia will not move beyond its paternalistic and destructive policies towards First Nations peoples.

Nowhere is this more evident than the ongoing issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The anniversary of John Pat’s murder by police officers in Roebourne, West Australia, on September 28, 1983, is a reminder of this. His death from head injuries after being beaten by police sparked a nationwide Watch Committee movement to demand an end to deaths in custody.

This week, protests will again mark his death and draw attention to the lack of action being taken to address this national disgrace.

Morrison may just have miscalculated the public mood today. There is nothing self-indulgent about coming to terms with Australia’s colonial past. In fact, it is self-indulgent not to.

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