In the lead up to 26th January we have seen the new Labor Government wind back several archaic measures implemented by the former Coalition Government which literally forced individuals and institutions to celebrate the day in 1788 that Captain Arthur Phillip and his men rowed ashore at Sydney Cove, raised the Union Jack and proclaimed British sovereignty over Aboriginal land. The moment that was a catalyst for centuries of genocide, incarceration, discrimination, physical and sexual violence, and forced removal from children, language and country that ensued at the hands of British settlers.
These measures, now overturned, included a rule that local Councils must hold citizenship ceremonies on the 26th January or be stripped of their right to hold citizenship ceremonies at all, and a rule that prevented public servants from choosing to work on the 26th January if they didn’t feel comfortable observing the public holiday. These measures were made in response to a growing proportion of the community who are choosing not to celebrate this day. This kind of silencing of dissent was more reminiscent of an authoritarian regime than a modern democracy.
Several surveys on attitudes towards Australia Day have been conducted in recent years. While the results of these surveys suggest that opposition to the celebration of the 26th of January remains a minority position, they also show a decline in support for Australia Day, especially by women and young people under the age of 35.
Until recently I have supported a growing number of people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) who say that we should “change the date” of Australia Day. Afterall, Australia is the only one of the 53 countries who remain signatories to the Commonwealth Charter, that dedicates a National Day of Celebration to the beginning of its own colonisation, which is a day of mourning for many First Nations peoples.
However I’ve now arrived at the opinion that we’ve simply outgrown a single celebration of our great nation, regardless of the date. It is insensitive to Indigenous people who sovereign land was stolen without a treaty, it undermines the beautiful and complex diversity that defines our multicultural country and at worst, promotes an aggressive and exclusionary form of nationalism. Australia Day forces upon us, some yobbish monoculture of beer, barbeques and Australian flags worn as capes that most of us don’t identify with anyway.
I am aware my position may be considered by some to be divisive. After two decades engaged in activism I’ve been called “divisive” more times than I can count. But I think that division is a space we must travel through on the way to unity. It’s a space where we acknowledge the inequality and injustice of the past and present and commit to ensuring it never happens again by enacting systemic change and in turn, meaningful progress towards racial justice.
So this year and every other year I will be proclaiming that the 26th of January is “not a date to celebrate”. I won’t be attending Council’s Australia Day Awards. I’ll be working as I do on any other day. I’ll also be taking the time to reflect on how I can dedicate my leadership to something much more meaningful – a treaty with First Nations people. I invite you to be part of a growing proportion of our community who are doing the same.
This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.
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