The first time I can remember ever, even vaguely, ‘celebrating’ Australia Day, was in 1988, the bicentennial celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet in what is today known as Sydney Harbour. What I remember more vividly was the amount of money that was going into ‘dressing up the nation’ leading up to the big event. If you don’t remember those heady days, you will certainly have seen its legacy; the cracking and crumbling pavers laid in the ubiquitous herringbone pattern, covering just about every inch of every main street of every city, town and suburb across this Land also known as Australia. Being a landscape gardener myself at the time, I remember the lure of the dollar to go to work on the pièce de résistance, the pinnacle of paving, Darling Harbour. I could’ve earned double what I was earning, working for a small business in the hills district of Sydney’s north-western sprawl; but then, I’ve never been one much for the madding crowd…
I don’t think the debate about Australia Day has as much to do with what happened on the actual date, as what it set in motion. It was barely a day, more like several hours, after the First Fleet’s inglorious departure from Botany Bay, crashing into each other, watched on by the two French ships that anchored the same day. The official commissioning of Phillip was on the morning of the 7th February, the night after Australia’s first ‘B & S party’ on the shores of Sydney harbour, but that’s a whole other story. Phillip, for his part, was quite empathetic to the Aborigines he encountered, and refused a reprisal, even after he himself was, sometime later, speared. But what can’t be denied is that the arrival of the First Fleet set in place the machinations of colonisation that forced the First Nations people off their Land by warfare, poisoning, displacement, starvation and murder. Many changes have taken place since 1788, and as a modern Nation we can take pride in many achievements. But that doesn’t change what happened over the last two centuries of occupation. I believe this is an issue of national empathy towards a people that now find themselves a minority in the Land that was theirs, and theirs alone for Millenia.
The best way I can think to convey this is to tell the story of some of my ancestors, the Scots. On 16 April 1746, the Jacobite rebellion was soundly defeated on the field of Colluden. Two thousand Scots died, and two hundred British. This wasn’t the first battle between English and Scot, but it certainly was the last. What also died that day, and, in the ensuing weeks, was traditional Gaelic highland life. Their culture, icons and language were banned, and much of their Lands were taken control of by British aristocracy. In the following century this allowed the mostly British Land owners to clear the Land of people to make way for sheep. The parallels to colonisation in the new world are blatant. Now if the British rulers had imposed that Scotland Day would be held on the 16th April each year, they probably would’ve got away with it. The only people that would’ve objected would’ve been the same people who now had no voice, the ones directly oppressed by the British rulers. The 16th of April, has, for many Scots, been a day of mourning, a day when the life they had continued for thousands of years came to an abrupt end. That is how I empathise with the plight of Aboriginal people now wanting to change the date. It’s not about changing history, it’s about changing attitudes, and having empathy for a marginalised people who mourn the loss of tens of thousands of years of culture and connection to their Land. I reckon even Captain Phillip would’ve supported changing the date.
The trouble with Australia Day being set on (approximately) the first day of British invasion is exactly that fact. The invasion of Australia was decisive and ultimately successful. Every order and commission carried out under the Union Jack was achieved: naval outposts to secure trade and military supremacy, a place to send prisoners transported from England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, South Africa and any other British controlled territory, and eventually the conquest of Land to supply the British Empire with wheat, wool and finally minerals. From an Anglo perspective, the invasion and ruling over this Land was a great success, and helped form the greatest Empire that has ever existed, under the reign of Queen Victoria. Moreover, once claiming its independence from Britain, and becoming a constitutional monarchy, Australia has forged ahead as a successful, modern Nation. So, celebrating the invasion of this Land actually makes sense, no less than Americans who celebrate their independence from the British in 1776, on the Fourth of July, setting in motion the displacement of America’s First Nations. So here’s the rub: the Aboriginal Nations never ceded their Lands, and as far as they are concerned, they are still being colonised, still being ruled over by a foreign government, and neither the British nor Australian governments have ever recognised their sovereignty. So, for Aboriginal people to say that Australia Day is a day of mourning, a reminder of all the atrocities that have and continue to be brought upon them by a foreign power, is equally compelling and true.
I’m all for changing the date, but not because it is historically inaccurate, nor because there is nothing to celebrate about Australia or being Australian, but simply because Aboriginal people are taking the lead and asking to change the date. It is well to remember that it is only since 1994 that all states and territories began having a public holiday on the actual date, the 26th. Although Australians have been celebrating Australia Day since the 1930s, and taking a public holiday, on the Monday closest to the 26th, it has hardly been a big occasion; not until the bicentennial celebrations of 1988. It serves us well to also remember Aboriginal people have been officially mourning and protesting the date since the Sesquicentenary year of 1938. It is no coincidence that Aboriginal protest and request to change the date have heightened in intensity as the ever increasing patriotic fervour and flag waving continues around the country each year on the 26th of January. It is also worth noting that many Aboriginal people are happy to celebrate Australia as a modern nation, just not on the same date that their Lands were invaded, and life as they knew it, changed forever. The sovereign First Nations of this vast Land are simply asking to change the date. They are not telling anyone not to celebrate Australia as a nation, nor even what date it should be changed to, but they are asking us to listen.
There are all number of dates that could be chosen, and many a perfunctory choice has been suggested by middle-aged white men, so being of that genre, I am reticent to put forward any suggestions. Again, I would prefer to wait and listen to the voice of Aboriginal people. However, I will advocate for what I believe is at the heart of this matter, and fuel for both sides of the argument over an arbitrary date, and that is a treaty. A treaty isn’t simply recognition of the past, nor an apology, or even a declaration of independence. It is the legal right to self-determination and self-government. In 1960, the General Assembly, of the United Nations, adopted its landmark Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, affirming the right of all people to self-determination. So, to this end, I believe we, modern Australians, need to listen to what Aboriginal people are saying, what they are asking for, what they want for themselves, and then, most importantly, give them the time to work it out and the autonomy to enact their choices. Back to my ancestors, the decision of the Parliament of Scotland to ratify the Treaty of Union in 1707, forming Britain, was not unanimous and, from that time, individuals and organisations have advocated the reinstatement of a Scottish Parliament. Some have argued for devolution – a Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom – while others have advocated complete independence. The people of Scotland first got the opportunity to vote in a referendum on proposals for devolution in 1979 and, although a majority of those voting voted ‘Yes’, the referendum legislation also required 40% of the electorate to vote ‘Yes’ for the plans to be enacted and this was not achieved. A second referendum opportunity in 1997, this time on a strong proposal, resulted in an overwhelming ‘Yes’ victory, leading to the Scotland Act 1998 being passed and the Scottish Parliament being established in 1999. There may come a day when Scotland becomes an independent nation.
For the Aboriginal peoples of this Land also known as Australia, let’s listen, support, and give them the autonomy they require to enact their own destiny.