On the weekend our parks were full of Australia Day revellers. Most, I expect, were celebrating their deep affection and appreciation of their nation of birth or adoption, the great natural gifts of a lucky country and its lucky people, the pride and the delight of being part of an essentially liberal, inclusive, and egalitarian community of mateship and ‘fair dinkum’ Aussie values. I suspect few, if any, were there to remember and rejoice in the misery of the boatloads of wretched convicts who were transported in irons from their homeland to be cast upon the desolate shores of distant antipodes. How many of those weekend revellers even knew the 26th of January hearkened back to that terrible beginning?Most of us can’t trace our connection with this country back so far. My parents first came here more than a century and a half later, in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, fleeing the grief and deprivation of post-war Europe. Many, many more came in the prosperous decades that followed, ‘riding on the sheep’s back’ in a world of milk and honey. Others, of course, can trace their connection back a great deal further.
The current debate around the so-called Invasion Day controversy has sparked a deal of resentment amongst some Australians, who accuse those who argue for the date of Australia Day to be changed of adopting a trendy, politically-correct “black armband” view of Australian history. They remind us the Brits themselves were invaded, by the Romans the Jutes, the Angles, Saxons and Normans, long before they ever sailed into Botany Bay, and contend the date of English arrival is as good as any other to celebrate Australia.
I guess that all depends on precisely what it is we’re celebrating. If we are in truth celebrating the landing of those convict ships, the end of the first awful stage of what for most would ultimately prove to be a journey of almost unbearable misery, and the grim beginning of a desperate period of survival in a hostile new land, then we’ve got the date exactly right. But if we’re actually celebrating things much more quintessential to our national identity, things most of us probably hold much closer to our hearts – the beautiful country in which we live, the just, generous and inclusive values we hold dear, the relaxed and open bonds of friendship that tie us together in the 21st century – then perhaps we should pause a little, to reflect somewhat more carefully on history.
I was intrigued to learn that precisely 80 years ago, on 26 January 1938, exactly 150 years after the landing of the First Fleet in Australia, and a full six years before my father first came to this country as a soldier in a European army sent for jungle warfare training at the Canungra Army base, to help repel a different invasion of Australia, a group of around 100 aboriginal protesters marched through the streets of Sydney to announce the 26th of January as a day of mourning for indigenous Australians. They had to wait for Australia Day festivities to pass before they were allowed to march, and when they arrived at the Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street they were refused entry by the front door, and told to enter through the back. But once inside, Aborigines Progressive Association president Jack Patten announced an Aboriginal Peoples’ Day of Mourning for what he called the “frightful conditions” suffered by indigenous people on government missions. And yet another twenty-nine years would pass before a national referendum would finally allow aboriginal people to be counted in Australia’s population.
Australians of different cultural backgrounds will have differing viewpoints on the impact of the arrival of Europeans (and later Asians, Africans and others) in Australia, in 1788, in 1945, in 1975, and in 2018. But hopefully all Australians will be able to agree on what we as Australians value, and what we seek to celebrate, about what it is to be Australian. If that is done more easily, with less pain, affront or insult, by abandoning references to any specific historical events, then isn’t that worth considering at least? Perhaps it’s time for us to have a sensible, and sensitive, discussion about precisely why Australia Day needs to be celebrated on 26 January, and what it is about that date we feel is likely to unite rather than continue to divide us as a nation.
Chris Nyst, Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker