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Australia Day and other great issues

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 12 September 2017

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that we are having a few tiny issues magnified into Great Ones, gay marriage being one. Now we are having another one, about Australia Day's being on 26 January. For those who haven't had a recent dose of Australian history, this is when Governor Arthur Phillip planted the flag on land somewhere near the present Government House at Sydney Cove. He had actually been there for a day, having arrived from Botany Bay, where he left the rest of the fleet, on the 25th, which was to join him on the 26th. No matter. His attitude towards the indigenous people he found was peaceful and conciliatory, though firm. January 26th has been Australia Day since perhaps 1838 (when it was Anniversary Day for New South Wales). The other colonies had their own celebrations for other foundation days, and it was not until the last century that January 26th became the usual day, and not until 1994 did it have common national significance.

Now some local government councils have decided that they won't conduct citizenship ceremonies on that day, in deference to the stated distress of some indigenous people that this day celebrates the invasion of their country. Some right-thinking people have said that we should search for another day altogether, one in which we can all come together without some kind of emotional hassle. This is not a new idea, though only a small minority of Australians, when polled about the issue earlier this year, thought the same. The great majority seem to like it the way it is.

The Federal Government has reacted with some contumely to this local government initiative, removing from the offending councils the right to conduct citizenship ceremonies at all, and making citizenship ceremonies the responsibility of a government department. So far the councils have all been in Melbourne (which is a considerable way from the site of the 'invasion'), but I wouldn't be surprised if the movement spreads across state borders. Some of the media reaction has been supportive of the councils. Karl Stefanovic of television's Today Show may stand for many, I think, in talking like this:


There is an argument in this country for Australia Day to be moved. What do you think? My initial response is what many would think … 'cmon, leave it alone. Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders, this is our day, all of us. Everyone come together. Commemorate but also celebrate. After all, that's what we do on Anzac Day. But I've changed my mind. Having spoken to several people from those communities, I empathise. As hard as some want to ignore it, January 26 marks a day this land changed forever for one of the oldest and most beautiful cultures in the world.

I am not with Karl, even though he empathises. To start at the end of his little statement, I can see nothing especially 'beautiful' in indigenous culture, diverse as it has been in all sorts of ways (at least three different waves of arrivals separated by long periods of time, hundreds of languages, many different art forms). There was no 'First Nation' - that is a borrowing from Canada, where several hundred 'bands' are grouped under this title). What had evolved here by 1788 were thousands of little family groups that had trading relationships, knew about the need for exogamy, had different accounts of Creation, had rules about country, had a nomadic life within that country, and lived in some fear but also in some expectation, with respect to other groups like themselves.

Beautiful? I guess it's a matter of taste. The culture that Governor Phillip and his colleagues encountered in 1788 has been almost completely abandoned. As I wrote recently, there are about 700,000 indigenous people, of whom perhaps half a million live in our urban areas, most of them indistinguishable from anyone else. The ones who live in remote settlements get the media attention. They prefer 4WDs to walking, smart phones to ceremonies, and rifles to spears. Western material culture, with its abundance and power to improve one's life and conditions, is simply too powerful. A friend writing in The Australiansuggested that we rename Australia Day to 'Rescue Day', the moment when the indigenous people were rescued from their hunter-gatherer existence. In religious terms the old ways have passed for most; maybe half of all indigenous people in Australia are Christian.

It is has been suggested on this site that I ought to have more empathy for the indigenous people, since I have travelled all over my country for a long time. Cape York will be my last non-visited area, broadly speaking, for I doubt that we will go there. I simply don't know what is meant in such a suggestion. What is supposed to happen when we empathise. What do we do then? I have written before about the politics of the Aboriginal situation (perhaps start here). And from that essay I take this text: 'As I wrote in my book What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia (Allen & Unwin), while there has been a great improvement of the conditions of Aboriginal Australians in the last sixty years, "there was no great satisfaction anywhere about either the present or the future"'.

And there won't be, as far ahead as I can see. The situation is simple. There will soon be 25 million people in Australia, of whom those of indigenous descent will make up perhaps three quarter of a million. Most of them have been absorbed into the greater society. No one of indigenous descent seems to want to return to being a hunter-gatherer with traditional implements, no Western medicine, no vehicles, no Western food. Despite the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory's statement to the contrary, there was no Frontier War, or Wars. Such language implies organised warfare on the part of nations or nation-like entities. That was not at all the case for the indigenous people, and rarely the case, if at all, for the colonial governments. It was in New Zealand, and there was a Treaty to end that war, the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840. The Maori were organised for war, and decently successful from time to time. They had plenty of practice, warring among themselves.

For those who feel that there was an 'invasion', with all its military connotations, and I am not one, there seems no possible or sensible form of recompense, and moving Australia Day to another date isn't it. I was uncertain about some sort of Constitutional recognition for indigenous people some years ago. Now I wait to see a convincing argument for it that does not bring with it future problems.


Perhaps 130,000 indigenous people or so live in or near remote and rural settlements, and some of these settlements sound like terrible places for anyone, especially women and children. I don't have a solution, and have only been to a couple, and then twenty or more years ago. As I argue generally, asking governments to sort other people's problems out is a weak-kneed way of behaving, and where they do it, as in the case of 'sit-down' money, the results are not impressive. Where I live I have served on Reconciliation Committees, which were fitfully useful, and would have been more useful had the indigenous members been more consistent in their attendance and their involvement. I made sure that my Aboriginal students, many of them from the Northern Territory, were brought gently and helpfully into an urban educational environment that was quite out of the experience of most of them. My wife assisted and tutored Aboriginal nursing students, without payment. You do what you can, when you can.

Back to Australia Day. What I hear, from mayors and councillors, when they are on TV, is an attempt to expiate felt guilt. I think this is ridiculous. If you feel that way, then do something yourself to help those you feel are in need. For local government councillors, use the Council's employment power to employ some indigenous workers. Going into symbolic politics like this is, at least to me, virtue-signalling. It doesn't help anyone in particular, but it makes you feel good, and no doubt you feel you look better than those who disagree with you.

And now the new clamour is to cover historic statues, pull them down, destroy them or deface them. None of that is going to improve relationships with the indigenous people. The history of Australia is one in which all of us should have some pride, and if not that, respect. In world terms, the growth and development of Australia (along with that of Canada) is one of the great stories of the 20th century, and indigenous people have benefited, just as others have. Graham Young's little essay on who 'discovered' Australia is pertinent in all of this is a fine read.

I greatly dislike the black-armband stuff. It is more symbolic politics, and destructive as well. I think it is historically weak, and overlooks the great advances that indigenous people have enjoyed over the past half-century. There will be more improvement in the next half-century, too. Be part of that, and avoid the ritual wailing and wringing of hands.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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