Today is January 26. Australia Day.
According to the Australia Day website, “Australia Day, 26 January, is the day to reflect on what it means to be Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia and acknowledge our history.”
This National Day is also controversial. It marks the day, Jan 26, 1788, when the British arrived to colonise a land already occupied by Australia’s First Peoples for at least 60,000 years. So the celebration of Australia Day, on the date of the British arrival, is a painful reminder of what came next. Some call it Invasion Day. Others call it a Day of Mourning. There are mixed feelings about whether we should be celebrating, what it is that we are celebrating and whether we should change the date.
In his book titled, Australia Day, Stan Grant explores what it means to be Australian, to be a nation and the questions surrounding the celebration of Australia Day. Grant argues that a nation is more than a flag or a set of laws, but instead is a process of becoming, “that whatever our differences there is a collective will to live together.”
Being Australian means something to us. It gives us a sense of who we are and where we belong. Grant identifies five aspects that form the basis of identity: home, family, race, history and nation, but also cautions that “there is a darker side to identity, a stifling conformity; an us and them.”
When I was at school we didn’t learn much about the Indigenous people of our nation at all. It is only in recent years that the truth of first contact is becoming more widely known. We have a dark history. First Contact was bloody and violent, as Aboriginal people were hunted down, shot on sight, poisoned and herded off cliffs, rounded up and restricted on Aboriginal reserves, denied human and citizenship rights. It is a shameful period of our history and the consequences are still evident today.
It has led me to wonder whether it would be a good idea to change the date. After all, if Australia Day is meant to be a celebration for all Australians, how can we continue to celebrate a date which causes such pain to our Indigenous People. For the sake of others, could we not change the date?
However Grant suggests that there are other questions we need to consider too and fears that “moving the date would only hand it to those who would reclaim it as a day of white pride.” As Grant points out, racism is deeply embedded in our society. We still have a long way to go to achieve reconciliation between black and white Australians. We have a long way to go to improve health, education and life expectancy for many Indigenous Australians.
Perhaps Grant is right, that prematurely changing the date might just sweep the past and our current issues under the carpet. Is it the date that needs to be changed or the nature of the celebration itself? Grant believes “a future Australia Day will still likely be a day of protest, a day of sadness, and a day of joy and thanks. We are all of those things.”
Perhaps one day we will change the date. In the mean time there is a lot of work to do in recognising and respecting Aboriginal culture, being honest in coming to terms with the past, and working together to create an Australia where all are included and valued and can share equally in our future.
Australia Day is a book that I would highly recommend for all Australians to read.