Australia Day has been described by various politicians as a day to celebrate all that is great about being Australian; a day that celebrates our values, our Australian values. Australia Day marks the raising of the British flag on the 26 January 1788, two days after eleven ships arrived with their cargo of convicts, officials, animals, seeds and those things deemed necessary to enable settlement and imprisonment.
The history of calling the 26 January Australia Day, like so much of white history in Australia, is recent. It was only marked as such by all states and territories in 1935. Three years later Indigenous people declared it a day of mourning. In 1988, the year of the Bicentennial celebrations, Indigenous people protested against the white-washed view of settlement. Henry Parkes was aware that this was not a day of universal celebration. In answer to the question about what he had planned for the Aboriginal people on the day variously known as First Landing, Anniversary Day or Foundation Day, he asked: “And remind them that we have robbed them?” The push for change is not recent.
For many people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, the date for celebrating our national spirit should be changed. It is not that there should not be an Australia Day; it is that it should be held on a different date. Our First Nation people regard it as a day of mourning. That we continue to celebrate it is disrespectful of the truth of white settlement and its impact on the First Nation people, their dispossession and the ongoing threat to culture.
Daniel, a student, says: “When I first moved from Mexico as a small boy, I took for granted the simple narrative of Australia Day. It was not until I was in higher education that a thought experiment was offered to me: Imagine that Australia was invaded and that a majority of your fellow countrymen, loved ones and friends were killed; and then imagine the invaders celebrating the day of invasion.”
The call to change the date is not a desire to be a wet blanket, to shame people or to be a revisionist. It is a call to acknowledge the whole Australian story and the history from which it emerges. Acknowledging our full history allows us to look at how we have done things in the past in order to ensure that we do not commit the same cruelties and mistakes again. It allows us to review our values and how we can protect our future through those values of respect, generosity, compassion, equality and love. Politicians pull out the Australian values argument regularly without fully examining how their invocations may reflect on those values. Is it respectful to disrespect the sensitivities of those people who have suffered as a result of our aggressive settlement? Which of our values are reflected in our response to massive inequity and inequality? Which of our values are reflected in our treatment of people forced to seek asylum and hope that Australian compassion will be kind to them? Which of our values are reflected in the ongoing rape and pillage of our environment with scant regard for the flora and fauna that also depend on these resources? Which values are reflected in the political opportunism that divides people, setting one group against the other?
We need a conversation that acknowledges the two points of view: the acknowledgement that Australia was taken forcibly by Britain and the desire to celebrate the coming together of people from all walks of life who continue to contribute to Australia’s cultural and economic wealth.