This is part of a series examining Australian national identity, especially around the ongoing debate about Australia Day.
January 26 is fast approaching. This is a day most Aussies look forward to: a day off work with friends and family, food, fun, and laughter. However, if previous years are anything to go by, that day, whether you call it “Australia Day”, “Survival Day”, “Invasion Day”, or whatever, is likely to be the source of some debate.
Those opposed to Australia Day, mainly for the date on which is celebrated, do so because of the historical significance – the British invasion and the destruction it brought.
Consequently, some Aboriginal people and a number of other Australians see Australia Day as a day of mourning – as first marked in 1938 – while others simply believe it is offensive to Aboriginal Australians.. Darumbal woman Amy McQuire, for example, describes the “real pain felt on this date”.
As such, the City of Fremantle, while not opposing Australia Day celebrations, is having a “culturally inclusive alternative” event two days later.
I certainly don’t see what happened at the time of the invasion as worthy of celebrating – nobody does. But I celebrate on January 26 with thousands of others for a quite different reason – because Australia is a great country to live in.
I agree with Aboriginal elder Robert Isaacs:
It [Australia Day] brings the community together, it brings the Australian people together and it celebrates the good this country has provided for everyone.
In response to my words “Australia is a great country to live in”, some will immediately retort: “Well, it’s not so great for many Aboriginal people.” I agree, and this should never be forgotten. But how will protesting about the date and Australia Day help those Aboriginal people most in need?
Celebrating on a particular day does not have to be tied to historical events, even if its origins are rooted in those events. Consider the celebration of Christmas Day. Though traditionally it had religious significance (and still does for some), for many people there is no religious meaning.
Today many Australians celebrate Christmas for other reasons: family; end of another hard year; food and drink; and summer holidays. Like Christmas Day, Australia Day is a holiday where most can relax and socialise, and reflect on matters that are of importance to them.
I respect people’s right to mourn and even to claim that Australia Day celebrations are causing them grief, insult, and suffering. However, I question the motives and sincerity of those claiming to be upset because of injustices committed in the past by what boils down to what one set of my ancestors did to another set of my ancestors.
Why do I not see them upset by the injustices committed by Aboriginal people against other Aboriginal people today? The high rates of violence in the Aboriginal population, particularly against women, are well documented – and widely known – yet there is comparatively little outrage. Why?
Protesting about the day, I believe, is a smokescreen to obscure the real problems that many Aboriginal Australians face today. In addition to the problem of violence there is poor health, community dysfunction, unemployment, child neglect, and poor school attendance.
These problems will not be solved by changing the date of Australia Day or giving it a new name. For those objecting to Australia Day celebrations, I encourage you to consider the aforementioned problems and ask yourself: “How will changing the name or the date help those who are suffering most?”
A time to reflect
While I see Australia Day as a day of celebration, it is also perfectly legitimate for people to take time to reflect on past injustices associated with the invasion. Australia Day can be a day of remembrance and reflection, as well as celebrations. Aboriginal academic Chelsea Bond writes:
I march in remembrance for those who lost their lives simply defending their own land and people.
She does this without bitterness.
While some claim it to be a day of mourning, for me and for many others Australia Day is an opportunity to celebrate living in this fantastic country. It does not have to be one or the other – we can reflect on the past, with particular attention given to the injustices endured by Aboriginal people since the invasion, and celebrate what a great country Australia is today.
Australia has changed almost beyond recognition in regard to Aboriginal people in recent years. We should acknowledge this and celebrate what a great country Australia is – and work together to make it even better.
January 26 is Australia Day – our Australia Day. Let’s celebrate together, allowing others the freedom to express what it means to them. We can celebrate the achievements of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and the successes achieved together.
Catch up on other pieces in the series here.