I have always approached Australia Day with mixed feelings.
For most of my life Australia Day was simply a public holiday. It is only in recent times that the country has embraced the day with patriotic fervour.
The beauty and strength of this nation is the diversity and difference of opinion that our institutions encourage and protect. So it is not surprising that as nationalism has increased there has been a steady rise in a counter-movement against Australia Day and concern for our indigenous population.
Where do my sympathies lie?
I am as patriotic as the next person. This country’s strong government and economy are the envy of the world. Our achievements in the arts, science and sport are to be lauded. The Australian character is unique. Partly laconic, partly rebellious, humourous and inventive. It has seen us develop a culture where (in large part) we give everyone “a fair go”, we scorn elitism and mateship means we watch out for each other. Australian courage is legendary. Our multi-culturalism has enriched us.
I am extremely proud of this country and its achievements (in a short period of time). We should hold our heads up high. We should celebrate this great country.
At the same time we are a nation with a shameful history towards our indigenous people. It is an indigenous population we should also be very proud of.
We have the longest surviving indigenous population in human history. Scientists tell us that Aboriginal occupation of Australia probably occurred 125,000 years ago and can be traced back 40,000 – 50,000 years.
That’s a staggering achievement!
In other words when Christ was making himself known in the Middle East the Australian Aborigines had already been here in excess of 38,000 years!
The cradle of civilisation Mesopotamia was established 12,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptian civilisation was established 5,000 – 6,000 years ago.
When the English settled this land in 1788, they were confronted by in excess of 500,000 Aborigines (some academics have estimated as high as 1,000,000), comprising dozens of nations and speaking several hundred languages.
The establishment of white civilisation in Australia was disastrous for the indigenous population. English arms, ruthless authoritarian policies and disease saw many thousands of Aboriginal die or be killed.
One cannot be happy with the treatment of our indigenous population. I believe it is important not to judge the actions of our predecessors by today’s standards. But notwithstanding, one cannot help cringe and gulp at the treatment and policies that devastated the indigenous population. Our Prime Minister’s apology in 2008 was well overdue.
So where does that leave me with Australia Day?
Australians are (now) a proud nation and such pride is justified and should be celebrated. But in my mind, it is not appropriate to celebrate our achievements on a day that fills our indigenous people with such dread, dismay and disgust.
Australia was not founded on 26 January 1788. On that day the English established a colonial outpost they called New South Wales. (This was an English achievement not an Australian one). Nationhood was still a long way away, it was not guaranteed and depended on a number of contingencies working out favourably.
We are in truth celebrating what happened after 1788. We didn’t become a nation until 1 January 1901 and even that historic event depended on Queen Victoria’s blessing (perhaps her last official act).
So called “Australia Day” is really NSW’s foundation day and should be celebrated in NSW (only).
In my view we should rethink the celebration of this great nation and “decouple” it from the current date.
That’s my view.
I believe we need some leadership and vision on this issue. We need a bipartisan program moving our nation towards a republic.
However, this next step in the progression of our country would be a hollow one if it did not occur without a parallel reconciliation program that addressed all the issues facing our indigenous people. These not only include health and education but land rights and the right of self determination and preservation.
Independent government does not occur until the objectives of the reconciliation program are met and vice versa.
My hope is that at some day in the future we can stand independently of Great Britain while embracing our indigenous people and securing their future.
These are big steps but not beyond the vision, ability and resources of this country.
We have floundered in our moves towards an independent government because our approach has been wrong. (I haven’t forgotten that the last time we looked at the issue it occurred under the false stewardship of John Howard, an avowed monarchist).
What makes us strong also weakens us in issues such a future republic. As a nation we shun elitism, we don’t trust politicians, we cherish our freedom and our choice. Howard was able to exploits these traits to stymy the move towards a Republic.
Next time, let’s not get bogged down in models and mechanics. Our present and likely future leadership is probably not capable of organising a republic. Instead let’s establish a conference or conferences (appointed by the people if necessary) to canvass opinion and develop a vision. Not unlike the conferences that established our federation (and the US federal government).
Reconciliation probably requires a different way. The issue has not been taken seriously by successive governments so a determined and genuine approach would be a start.
Once a republic (or some form of independent government) is established we can have a new Australia Day and the Queens Birthday holiday will be replaced by Reconciliation or Indigenous Day.
Let’s not just dream it, let’s do it.