Every year, Australia Day is ‘celebrated’ with increasing fervour. The cheap Australia Flag singlets, thongs, tattoos and other trinkets come out earlier and earlier like the Christmas ornaments that fill supermarkets in September.
And as we suffer through hotter summers, we also have to survive the heat of rising jingoism, and drunken cries of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi!’
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always felt alienated on this day that marks the arrival of the First Fleet to Botany Bay. It is seen as the beginning of the dispossession, the theft of land, children, remains and wages. As early as 1938, Aboriginal protestors lead by Jack Patten, Doug Nicholls, Bill Ferguson, William Cooper and Jack Kinchela, congregated at Town Hall in Sydney to mark the Aboriginal ‘Day of Mourning’ on the Australian ‘Day of Rejoicing’.
These feelings around the day have continued in new incarnations. Mob now label this day ‘Survival Day’ or ‘Invasion Day’, and rather than take part in official celebrations, stage protests across the country, including at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.
The National Australia Day Council (NADC) has always had similar aspirations for what the day means – it has promoted the day as ‘developing national pride’ in the 80s and ‘Inspir[ing] national pride and spirit to enrich the life of the nation’ in the 2005-2006.
It has been forced to confront the reality of what this day means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and claims that ever since 1993 it has also been focused on ‘reconciliation’ as part of celebrations. It boasts a Reconciliation Plan (RAP).
The Council says on its website it “believes that our national day should be authentic and mature where we can celebrate and mourn at the same time. We can honour all that is great about Australia and being Australian, remember the sufferings and our shortcomings and commit to build a more cohesive and inclusive nation. We do so with an underlying spirit of optimism.”
But this amounts to little more than co-option of Aboriginal dissent. It does this so it doesn’t have to confront the real pain that exists around this date from mob who feel alienated from society. It never actually engages with the unfinished business of this nation, and instead is complicit in how this date and the celebrations around it whitewash Aboriginal aspirations to land justice, treaty and sovereignty.
The idea you can ‘celebrate and mourn’ at the same time is ridiculous, and only makes sense if you are the one celebrating.
You can’t celebrate and mourn when every day Aboriginal people are still being treated unequally in the eyes of the law, the health system and the education system. You can’t ‘celebrate and mourn’ at the same time when we have some of the world’s highest jailing rates, when we have mob dying before their time, when we are still far from true land justice.
Those who believe we can ‘celebrate and mourn’ at the same time, are those who don’t actually have to do it. There is no attempt to wonder how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot.
First Nations people are expected to put up with national celebrations that rejoice at the theft of our land and the oppression of our people for the sake of some false patriotism, an unfounded notion of ‘unity’.
Maybe we can all start celebrating ‘unity’, when Aboriginal people are seen as equal in the eyes of the law, and the child protection system, and the health system, and the education system, and the rest of Australia, really.
It is also highly offensive when you consider that everything they ‘celebrate’ on this day – the prosperity, wealth, lifestyle and freedom – that many Australians enjoy, was built off the back of First Nations peoples, off the subjugation of our ancestors and the riches torn from our lands by big mining companies.
This day also does nothing for ‘reconciliation’, which in itself is a meaningless term that substitutes empty rhetoric to obscure calls for justice. The concept of reconciliation has always been criticized because it puts too much of the onus back onto Aboriginal people while letting White Australia off the hook.
Reconciliation in its current form has also been overly focused on corporate responsibility and RAPs are signed by some of the worst human rights offenders in the country.
G4S, the security company that cooked Aboriginal elder Mr Ward to death in the back of a prison van the day after Australia Day in 2008 also has a RAP, as does Transfield, which manages detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
But it should also be noted that the Council for Reconciliation’s Roadmap to Reconciliation says that changing the date to one inclusive of all Australians is paramount.
How can the National Australia Day Council promote ‘reconciliation’, when one of the key parts of reconciliation involves changing the date of the event it was set up to promote?
One of the most common criticisms against Aboriginal people who mourn and protest on this day is that we are being ‘divisive’. But this charge is always directed at blackfellas by those who don’t want to lose something- and they don’t want to lose one day of the year when they can drape themselves in flags, in this sickening display of overt patriotism and drink themselves silly (while also claiming blackfellas are the drunks).
Aboriginal people have always had a lot more to lose. And that’s why we will always protest this date and try to abolish it all together.