The debate about whether or not January 26 is a suitable date to mark Australia Day has become almost as omnipresent around this time of year as references to beer and BBQs. Personally, I think Martin Flanagan is right when he says it is hard to think of a worse date than January 26. Even on the most basic point of historical accuracy, the date marks the founding of the colony of New South Wales. Other colonies were established on the Australian continent on other dates, and they only came together as the federated nation of Australia on January 1 in 1901. Of course, if we were to use January 1st, we would have to acknowledge that a significant part of the drive for federation was driven by political leaders stridently promoting racism and xenophobia. Apart from the indecency and the individual human hardship which resulted, this also - as George Megalogenis details in his most recent book - left Australia significantly weakened economically, socially and internationally for the best part of half a century.
Having said that, we wouldn’t have to acknowledge this clear and crucial fact - and I’d say chances are we would work very hard to ignore it. I say that because our society as a whole already puts a lot of psychological energy into ignoring other very unpleasant parts of our history which are undeniably intertwined with the January 26 historical narrative – namely the callous and cruel treatment of the original inhabitants of the Australian landmass which flowed out of that settlement.
The fact that Stan Grant’s compelling speech on the ferocious racism experienced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has gone viral shows just how deeply this refusal to accept the reality of Australia’s history resonates with so many people.
Whether we stick with January 26, or move to a different date, the core of the problem is a refusal – what seems to me to be a wilful refusal – to acknowledge central aspects of the formation of Australia as a nation. This will never be fully addressed until there is a treaty or treaties with the descendants of those who were already here when colonisation unfolded. The window of opportunity to act on a Treaty was clearly there in the 1980s, but the Labor government of the time failed to take it. This can and should still be done, but it will take some time to do it properly (and unless it can be done properly, it shouldn’t be done at all).
But one other far more simple and clear cut thing which could be done in the meantime at both state and local government level would be to provide recognition of and memorials to the many battles and mass killings of Aboriginal people which occurred as part of colonisation (also often called ‘settlement’). Not all of the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during settlement were due to direct killings. Plenty came from disease – whether incidental, neglectful or deliberate – as well as starvation. But despite disputes about the exact numbers, there is undeniable evidence of plenty of massacres, battles and direct killings - as well as widespread forced removals. All of this highlights that the land was taken by force, and that the original inhabitants provided continuing resistance to this occupation. The ‘settlement’ process in my own state of Queensland is often stated as being the most violent of any Australian colony, and there are plenty of sites that the state government and/or local Councils could place memorials at.
Formally acknowledging and commemorating the fighters and casualties of the frontier wars won’t stop the debates about what date is the best one to mark Australia Day, but it will at least make us more aware of the reality of Australia’s history and more fully acknowledge the first peoples’ part in it.
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