The ongoing political debate about whether the 26th of January ought to be called ‘Australia Day’ or ‘Invasion Day’ has led us to an uncomfortable national stalemate.
Our perspectives are polarised. Those of us who recognise that this date is overwhelmingly offensive to our Indigenous population, given that we are literally “cheers-ing” to genocide, do not know what to do. We feel awkward. Between Violent Soho and Flume in the Triple J Hottest 100, we think “gull – I should probably stop having so much fun. Should I go and…reflect or something? Am I being a white supremacist? Should I be protesting? Is it inappropriate to turn up to an ‘Invasion Day’ protest drunk off ‘Australia Day’ drinks? This is so f**ked up.”
Those who are not plagued by such cognitive dissonance, argue: “Why can’t I just celebrate bein’ ‘Strayan?” showing off their Southern Cross tattoo which adorns their severely sun damaged skin; to which we want to reply “Why are you SO sunburnt? Oh that’s right…because your grandparents are Irish. Nevermind.”
But we do not say that. Because if someone is proud of being Australian, then they are entitled to express that. They even deserve the space to express that.
France has Bastille Day.
The USA has Independence Day.
There are things that we, as Australians, can be proud of. Our gun laws. Our beaches. Russell Coight. Our inspiring feminist history. The reality that our favourite form of justice is when a racist is interrupted on public transport. Bondi Rescue. The fact we’re the only country to use the word ‘c**t’ affectionately. That Qantas ad, with the singing. Red Dog. The Castle. Our expertise in humiliating news reporters live on air.
This is one of our favourite things on the whole entire Internet.
These are all very valid things to be proud of.
But there are 364 other days of the year that are far more appropriate to demonstrate our national pride.
So why do we insist on celebrating ‘what it means to be Australian’, on the very day we waged war on our first people?
Why do we wave our flag, rooted in our British, colonial history, in the faces of a culture which suffered so unimaginably as a result of it?
Germany doesn’t celebrate being German on the first day of World War II.
Do most of us even realise the historical significance of the 26th? Or do we just interpret it as a convenient public holiday that lands just when we wish we never went back to work?
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On the 26th of January 1788, The First Fleet, led by Captain Arthur Phillip, sailed into Botany Bay. They declared that the land they had ‘discovered’ belonged to no one. In turn, they dispossessed all Indigenous Australians. Their disregard, exhibited so clearly in this historical moment, for the Indigenous population that had lived on this land for at least 40,000 years, paved the way for the unimaginable atrocities that were to come.
The story of ‘colonisation’ we were so carefully taught at school, infers there was no violence. The British merely ‘settled’.
The British who arrived on the 26th of January, would bring with them small pox, which killed between 50-90 per cent of Sydney’s Aboriginal population.
Their arrival on the 26th of January was the beginning of a war that lasted for over a century.
The cliche goes that “history is written by the victors” and never has that been more true than in the case of the British massacres perpetrated against the Indigenous Australians. We know of countless instances of widespread murder by the British invaders.
Any reputable historian who has studied the case of Torres Strait Islanders, considers it an unequivocal case of genocide. Most who have studied Aboriginal history agree that the culture, at large, were the victims of genocide.
As Australians, we cannot continue to embrace a national day that takes place on the 26th of January, simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. We’re better than that.
John Pilger refers to it as “one of the saddest days in human history”. The arrival of the British meant the virtual destruction of a great deal of Aboriginal culture. And that’s the day we choose, year after year, to celebrate being Australian.
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The 26th of January, by its very historical nature, deserves to be a national day of mourning. There is absolutely no pride to be found on this page of history.
Respecting our first peoples and celebrating being Australian are not mutually exclusive practices. We are evolved and we can handle complexity. We can acknowledge achievement alongside struggle, guilt alongside pride, and destruction alongside progress. We invented Google Maps for goodness sake. And the cochlear implant. We invented bloody WiFi. If we can produce spray on skin, then we can accept a narrative that is not all good and not all bad.
What cumulatively makes Australia great isn’t what happened on that day. What makes us great is the day we said ‘sorry’, on the 13th of February. That is a day worth celebrating.
The ideological stalemate we have found ourselves in on the 26th of January is far from inevitable. We do not need to do away with Australia Day. We do not need to write out the historical atrocities the British are responsible for.
We just need to, at last, change the date.