Australia Day has always been celebrated on 26th January – except when it wasn’t …
Today is our national day. We celebrate the first settlement of white settlers on Australian shores. Captain Cook had been here a decade before, and Dutch, Portuguese and English mariners had touched land at various point earlier in the century, but didn’t find the amenities attractive enough to stick around.
Many people, particularly rightwing politicians and opinionistas, and white Anglo-Celtic nationalists regards this seminal moment as “a good thing” to borrow a phrase from “1066 and All That”. After all, it brought the benefits of European civilization to those whom Rudyard Kipling might later have referred to as “fluttered folk and wild, half demon and half child”. After two centuries of dispossession, enslavement, massacre, and, in recent times, gradual steps towards recognition and restitution, many descendants of the first peoples think otherwise and regard 26th January as Invasion Day, a time of mourning.
It has become a time for debating our history, and also, our identity. It is also about memory and myth. As American author CE Morgan has written, “Repeated long enough, stories become memory and memory becomes fact”. German academic Ulrich Raulff put it this: “ … our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts … This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.
And so around this time every year, people argue about moving the date to one that is less divisive, and indeed, to one that more realistically commemorates the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia. January 1st for example. is put forward as the day six states came together as one Commonwealth under a federal government. The problem with January 1st is of course that being New Year’s Day, and already a fireworks and hoopla day off, no one would notice. The Queen’s Birthday weekend in June (it’s not her’s actually, but George III’s, but never mind) is also mooted. But that’s wintertime And not good for the beach and a cold beer. Moreover, January 26th is ideally placed as the last long-weekend before the kids go back to school.
As if responding to Pavlov’s bell, folk of a conservative persuasion evoke the irrevocable sanctity of January 26th as a commemoration of how we became who we are – that is, a mainly white and Christian but increasingly multihued and multifaith democracy at the fag-end of the earth. The conservative media seize upon it as an opportunity to serve up overblown, meretricious flimflam not withstanding the fact that the story of the First Fleet is thrilling enough without over-leavening it with patriotic flagwaving, triumphalism, and a big serve of manifest destiny.
The idea of celebrating the acknowledged virtues of our country – its tolerance and openness, its acceptance of immigrants of all colours, cultures, and religious beliefs, its mythical values of “mateship” and a “fair go” are sound. In citizenship ceremonies across our island continent, migrants from all over swear allegiance to our nation and it’s English queen (but we won’t go there). And yet, the day itself has evolved into a shibboleth, a caricature, a bombastic, jingoistic carnival of flags and fireworks, partying and posturing. It’s as if we forget that on January 26 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip established a penal colony – not a nation. Of the 1336 souls who landed, over half of them were in chains.
Ironically, the day is not at all sacrosanct. For most of the century of our existence as a nation, most Australian states did not see a reason to celebrate this Sydney-centric beano with such gusto. indeed, as the picture below shows, the date itself was quite portable. the It was only on the occasion of our bicentenary in 1988 that it officially donned the aura of a secular holy day of obligation – and, of course a public holiday conveniently placed between the hot and lazy Xmas holidays and the commencement of the school year. Recent polls have show that a majority of Australians wouldn’t be too fussed if the date was moved. A significant proportion are hard pressed to say what it is we are actually commemorating.
Perhaps one good reason we ought to abolish Australia Day is that we are not grown up enough as a nation to deserve it.
[I have included at the end of this post what I consider a reasonably well-nuanced appraisal of the culture wars being fought out over Australia Day. Paul Kelly of The Australian is a conservative commentator, and is obliged to recite form the News Corp song sheet when it comes to repeating the cliched mantras of his mother-ship – or is it ‘fathership’?) but he weighs well the tired arguments of left and right and argues for what would, could or should pass for the ‘reasonable middle’]
And so, today is our national day. A day when the “black armband” and “white armband” tribes leave off their month-long cage-fight that has dominated the media during the Xmas holiday doldrums, and just enjoy a day off.
And we can have a break from self righteous patriotics until our next official day off: Anzac Day, when we celebrate our defeat the hands of Johnny Turk at Gallipoli, and when, of course, The Australian and it’s hired hacks will get carried away by all the Anzacery bluster, and express their indignation with all who criticize that shibboleth. The irony of Anzac Day is that whilst it rightfully remembers the cost and futility of war, its commercialization has meant that more money is spent on political and patriotic posturing than on our serving soldiers and on those who return home injured and traumatized. As Samuel Johnson quite rightly (is said to have) said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.
For more in In That Howling Infinite on Australian history and politics, see Down Under
We’ve had those Australia Day blues for a long time as this report from the ABC demonstrates:
‘We thought they were going to be massacred’
ABC Broken Hill. Aimee Volkofsky, 25 January 2018
Watch the video here: Eighty years since forced First Fleet re-enactment (ABC News)
WARNING: This story contains images of deceased Indigenous people.
On January 26, 1938, as the first rally against Australia Day was held, 25 Indigenous men were told if they did not perform the role of ‘retreating Aborigines’ in a re-enactment of the First Fleet, their families would starve.
Government officials had selected the best dancers and singers from Menindee mission in far-west New South Wales and told them they were required to perform cultural dances in Sydney. What they were sent to take part in was a re-enactment of the landing and proclamation of Captain Arthur Phillip at the 150th Australia Day celebrations.
Ngiyaampaa elder Dr Beryl (Yunghadhu) Philp Carmichael, born and raised on the mission, was only three at the time, but her memory of the fear in the community never left her.
My grandfather protested Australia Day in 1938
The inescapable reality is that Australia’s current national day excludes and alienates Indigenous people — 80 years after my grandfather marched the streets in a fight for equality, writes Ngarra Murray. “All I can remember is the crying, all the women were crying,” she said. “Whether they were taking them away to be massacred or what, no-one knew. The community went into mourning once they were put on the mission truck.”
The men returned a week later, but Dr Carmichael said it was many years until they would talk about their experience. ‘They came back very quiet,” she said. “It was only in the late 70s they started saying something about what it was like down there. We knew whatever happened down there really hurt them and we didn’t question them.”
Hidden from friends and family
It is speculated that part of the reason for bringing Indigenous people all the way from Menindee was because those in Sydney refused to take part. In Sydney plans were afoot to hold a rally on Australia Day; the Aborigines Progressive Association would declare it a ‘day of mourning’.
Aboriginal rights leaders William Ferguson and John Patten published the Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights! pamphlet on January 12, 1938. In it they declared, “We do not ask you to study us as scientific freaks … the superstition that we are a naturally backward and low race … shows a jaundiced view of anthropologists’ motives”.
Those in power at the time seemed eager to keep the Menindee men well away from activists, keeping them locked away in police barracks.
The incident was detailed in a biography on William Ferguson, written by Jack B Horner in 1974. “The Secretary of the Protection Board had a shrewd idea that Ferguson would try to prevent the Menindee men from taking part in this re-enactment. The Board was taking no chances. Nobody could meet the Aborigines in the coming week in Sydney, without … obtaining personal permission.” — from Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom: a biography by Jack B Horner
Dr Carmichael said there had been whisperings of the movement on the mission, and a direct link to Mr Ferguson.
“Most people on missions couldn’t read and write; that made it really hard for them to understand the government documents they were throwing around,” she said. “Old Bill [Ferguson], because he knew his brother Duncan was back on the mission, he used to send messages back to him. But in the end the mission manager found that out, picked the old fella [Duncan] up in a truck and dumped him over the hill [outside the mission boundary].”
Mr Ferguson attempted to get word to the Menindee men while they were in Sydney but, as elaborate as they were, his efforts were unsuccessful. “Then followed in the week before the celebrations an amusing battle of tactics between the Protection Board officers and the executive of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association….Some Sydney relatives of a Peter Johnson from Menindee tried to see him at the barracks. The relatives had been sent by Ferguson, of course, in order to pass to Hero Black (the leader of the Menindee party) a message not to take part in the mortifying ‘retreat’ from the ‘first party of Englishmen’.” (From Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom: a biography by Jack B Horner) . They were eventually allowed a closely supervised visit from two female relatives.
The men soon discovered their duties would include playing the part of Aboriginal people fleeing British soldiers.
Threatened with ration cuts
While the activists may have gotten their message through to the performers, discouraging them from taking part in the re-enactment, the men were left with little choice.
Dr Carmichael said when it came to performing traditional dance, the men were troubled to find they would be led by an Aboriginal actor who did not speak their language or know their culture.
“The government unknowingly or knowingly put up a big Aboriginal, good looking fella as the leader of the dancers and they didn’t even know him. He wasn’t from Ngiyaempaa,” she said. “That really devastated the people and they refused to dance. [The government] threatened them and threatened them; if they didn’t perform they’d cut off the rations to their people on the mission. It was the toughest time of their lives, I think. I’m just happy we survived’
Eighty years on, as debate continues around whether January 26 is celebrated or mourned, Dr Carmichael said she was happy to have survived, even though she was sad about the past. “We were brought up to tolerate a lot of things and to give thanks for being alive,” she said. “I’m just glad I survived with my culture intact and am alive to teach and pass it on. We should strive for peace, between all nations. We need to come together as people.”
Australia Day: we must face the two truths about January 26
Australia Day is getting bigger, brighter, more celebratory and stained by the rising tide of culture war hostility. The transformation of January 26 from a sleepy public holiday two generations ago into a boisterous party and civic commemoration has provoked a political backlash conceived in two different sentiments — grievance and exploitation.
The debate is not just about our national day. It’s really about who we are, what symbols we honour and, ultimately, the legitimacy of our civilisation. This debate can break one of two ways: robust differences can generate a better understanding of Australia and its national day or the upshot can be a destructive orgy of self-interested identity politics leading to a diminished and divided country.
The progressive crusade to remove January 26 as Australia Day has won fresh momentum for a movement bent upon imposing its views on the nation. Nobody should be surprised.
The volatility of social media, the power of negative politics and the emotional manipulation around “invasion day” constitutes sufficient warning that things could go badly wrong.
A nation ignorant of its history or simply unable to handle its history is heading for trouble in the present age of populist and cheapjack disruption.
Those pledged to “change the day” underestimate the popularity of the late January public holiday before the kids return to school, when barbecues abound in parks and backyards, fireworks make a spectacular night, the Australian flag adorns cars and front verandas, the sense of community is tangible, and civic and citizenship ceremonies at the local level testify to a beating patriotism.
In every such event there are tributes to the first Australians. This is embedded in our civic culture. More indigenous peoples are participating and being recognised on Australia Day, with its official emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity. Since governor Lachlan Macquarie nominated the public holiday in 1818, the day has seen enormous and essential reinterpretation.
Beware, however, the emerging malaise — a culture war between the green-identity, politics-progressive left determined to destroy the current day and the hopelessly unpersuasive conservatives who defend the status quo, speak and listen only to one another and lose every battle because they cannot find a language to appeal to a diverse mainstream.
There are two truths about January 26, 1788. It was the threshold moment for one of the most audacious experiments of the Age of Enlightenment seeding a British settlement and society on the continent most distant from Britain under the practical yet visionary leadership of Arthur Phillip, in many ways the true founder of Australia who, against almost every prospect, had the insight to believe this convict colony at the ends of the earth would one day be “the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made”.
Those who say the story of the First Fleet and settlement are boring and uninspiring are dead in their imagination and blind in their vision.
The associated truth is that the oldest civilisation on earth, isolated for thousands of years from the rest of the globe and hence extremely vulnerable, was unable to defend itself and suffered dispossession of its lands, ravage from disease, loss of life in conflict and loss of its way of life.
Despite the initial good intentions towards the Aborigines displayed by Phillip, the great moral failure in Australian polity was the belief there was no place, no dignity and, indeed, no life for the original Australians.
Both truths are authentic. Neither can, nor should, be denied. This is our inheritance and, in its soaring achievement and murderous squalor, it constitutes the unique meaning of Australia. One of the central purposes of our existence is to find a way of living with these truths and ensuring the peoples who embody such different traditions can live together and thrive together. There is simply no alternative.
We should exist neither in perpetual grievance nursed by the indigenous peoples and those, like the Greens, who recklessly exploit their grievances, nor in the complacency of those Europeans who still pretend there was no dark side to the civilisation we enjoy.
The issue is whether we have the maturity to hold together conflicting truths and sort things through, or whether we choose ideological indulgence and cynical zero-sum politics.
Australia Day needs to stand because the nation cannot run or hide from either the glory or tragedy in its duality. The answer to indigenous feelings about January 26 is to construct, not destroy — if there is sufficient agreement, then construct a new day of indigenous commemoration, suffering, survival and triumph. That will take time but over time it may emerge as one of the constructive solutions for Australia.
Declaring that January 26 must be shut down as a day of shame, genocide and mourning offers no solution to anyone. Telling the descendants of Arthur Phillip that the origin of the British civilisation and prosperous multicultural democracy they have built lacks sufficient legitimacy to be honoured as the national day is dishonest and destructive. How could it not be?
In this paper today, indigenous leader Noel Pearson says the blackfellas were here 65,000 years before whites arrived and it is vital we “recognise and honour this”. Pearson also says the whitefellas aren’t going away, they created something and it is also vital to “recognise and honour this”.
Tearing one truth down in the cause of another is the road to ruin for Australia. Both truths need to be confronted and engaged. “Trying to erase January 26 is denying the very history we want Australians to face up to,” Pearson says. “There is no other relevant time or date other than those 24-48 hours when ancient Australia passed into the new Australia.” It is this transition the nation must face.
The enemies of this obligation are thick on the ground as radicals and conservatives, often peddling phony mantras. The self-interested cynicism in the stand of Greens leader Richard Di Natale is gobsmacking. With his eye on stealing future votes in inner-city Melbourne, Di Natale announces changing Australia Day will be a priority for the Greens during the rest of the year since the day is about theft and genocide.
What will replace January 26? Why should Di Natale bother with such trifles when there are ideological axes to be swung and votes to be purchased through cultivating national self-abasement under the fraudulent cover of morality?
In response, Labor leader Bill Shorten was just pathetic: he won’t defend Australia Day, he won’t abandon Australia Day and he doesn’t like another day of Aboriginal commemoration. In the end he says the day itself is not what really counts. Yes, this is the alternative PM on our national day. Perhaps we should be grateful he didn’t line up with Di Natale’s view that the flag should be flown at half mast on the national day.
Malcolm Turnbull, unsurprisingly, said he’d like to hear Shorten speak “proudly and passionately” about Australia Day. But Shorten has a problem, given the embrace by much of the Labor rank and file of a progressive orthodoxy towards changing the national day anyway and at odds with majority public opinion.
Indigenous ALP frontbencher Linda Burney stepped into this confusion, criticising the Greens, saying Australia Day won’t be changing any time soon, but highlighting the difficulty it poses for Aborigines as a day of celebration. Aware that NSW ALP policy calls for consultation about a new and separate public holiday devoted to indigenous commemoration, Burney put this idea on the table. It is not ALP policy but Burney was being constructive and her proposal merits serious consideration.
Turnbull preaches an Australia Day that brings people together and celebrates our multicultural diversity. The government has properly removed the right of local councils to hold citizenship ceremonies if they refuse to recognise Australia Day and hold citizenship ceremonies on that day. But the reality cannot be avoided: division over Australia Day will mount in the future and this will require astute leadership and management.
For many Aborigines, January 26 will remain invasion day, and that is understandable. But any alternative national day that commemorates British settlement or the foundation of Australia has a similar problem. The logical alternative of January 1 — the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia — would honour an event that denied any role or existence for Aboriginals and assumed they were a dying race.
In truth there is no escape from the history — yet the historical story must be authentic, not convenient mythology. Australia was always destined to be settled by a European power. The force of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution would never be denied from the great southern land. There are few inevitabilities in history and this was inevitable.
We are fortunate the European power was Britain, not France or Spain. This was an 18th-century blessing. We are fortunate the British came not just to establish a convict colony but to bring their values and institutional ethos.
Phillip had an 18th-century faith in improvement, a belief he was founding a new British society and serving the cause of humanity. With slavery still not abolished in the empire, Phillip declared from the inception of Australia that “there can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves”.
The Aborigines he encountered were not a nation state. They were a collection of hundreds of tribes speaking different languages, devoid of collective political purpose or leadership, often at war with each other and without the structures to allow sovereign negotiations or dealings.
To say the British should not have come is a ludicrous denial of reality and makes as much sense as saying the early explorers should not have advanced inland to discover the continent. To pretend the Aborigines could or should have retained their possession of the continent forever is delusional and is a device to avoid historical reality.
The encounter between the British and the Aborigines was without precedent in human history. The idea that good intentions were enough for success is absurd. Historian Geoffrey Blainey says in first volume of his The Story of Australia’s People: “The racial conflict in Australia — nearly all would agree today — should have been handled more wisely and firmly but the British leaders lacked the political and cultural experience needed to handle a dilemma that was exceptional in world history. Furthermore, London at one end of the globe and Sydney and Hobart at the other end viewed the dilemma and their duties and powers, differently.”
The idea that the British arrivals should have negotiated a treaty is nonsense. With whom and on what basis? There is no answer. During the 70 years after settlement many thousands of Aborigines were killed by Europeans — though far more died from diseases — creating a moral legacy the nation cannot deny and must confront.
Efforts to do this have been substantial while incomplete. Witness the Reconciliation process, the Mabo case and granting of native title rights, huge though flawed public funding, and the continuing process of constitutional recognition.
The first Australians lost much from the events of 1788 yet they also gained much, eventually — proving that indigenous peoples could live and thrive in a modern urban society. Aborigines are poised to become more prominent in every facet of Australian life.
The related truth, however, is that as a nation we cannot pretend there is full atonement for the dispossession. We cannot say: “Sorry, let’s leave.” We could not do this in 1808, let alone 1901, let alone 2018. There can be no full rendering of justice, no full recompense after dispossession. History cannot be reversed.
We must honour and reflect on the history, restore Aboriginal rights, and strive for justice as much as practicable. But it cannot serve indigenous Australians to engage in perpetual grievance, to magnify the sins of the past in an endless demand for atonement and more atonement still, part of a futile quest to deny any legitimacy to January 26. That is the road to a self-defeating misery.
The bulk of the Australian population, including the millions of post-World War II immigrants and their descendants, will neither accept nor tolerate the idea that the British founding of this country was a shameful and illegitimate event. When the Greens and other progressives promote this sentiment — exploiting indigenous resentment for their own ideological and electoral gains — there is no upside for our polity, just counterproductive bitterness with the risk of violence.
Where is the legitimacy in January 26? It lies in the society that evolved and continues to evolve, a nation that, for all its faults, is democratic, egalitarian, tolerant and, in per capita terms, has opened its door to immigrants on a more sustained basis than virtually any other developed country. This constitutes a powerful legitimacy.
It was Noel Pearson more than a decade ago, in a famous letter to John Howard, who offered the most honest and enduring framework for presenting and understanding contemporary Australia. For Pearson, the nation embodies three traditions: the indigenous peoples, the first Australians, who roamed this continent for 65,000 years, long before the ages of Babylon, Athens and Rome, finding a way to live and thrive in this environment; the British inheritance dating first from the voyages of James Cook and then from the initial colony under Phillip, followed eventually by Lachlan Macquarie and more settlements across the continent that led to a polity of British-derived laws, values and institutions that still operate today; and the immigrant tradition, the ethnic input from so many nations that broadened and deepened the culture and led to a multicultural nation, one of the most successful on earth.
These three traditions need formal embodiment. Pearson’s vision was adopted by Tony Abbott as PM. But it needs a more declaratory form authorised by the parliament or the people. This is a critical step in finding a national identity that is shared and inclusive and can win wide support because of its validity.
The issue of constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples needs to be reopened with a new process. This time there needs to be greater realism on all sides. The Turnbull cabinet rejected the final recommendation for an indigenous advisory body to be inserted into the Constitution because it believed such a referendum had no prospect of success. Those attacking this decision have singularly failed to offer any explanation or strategy of how such a referendum could be passed.
There have been some suggestions that the Australia Day issue can be postponed pending the inauguration of an Australian republic. That is a tempting but most unwise proposition. The republic will not provide the answer and, moreover, it is probably many years or decades away.
While the republic is a necessary step in Australia’s evolution, its cause is currently weak and devoid of energy. This is because of the destructive transformation in progressive politics to embrace change based on individual and group rights around sex, gender and race, a combination of tribal and narcissistic imperatives.
The republic has no voice or appeal in this world. It won’t change your personal life, it won’t relate to how you live, it won’t speak to your gender, sexual or racial identity. Paul Keating once lamented the republic had been consigned to an after-dinner conversation; these days it doesn’t even win that rating. When was the last dinner party you attended where the republic got anything more than the briefest mention?
Shorten pledges that in office he will launch a path to the republic. But that will prove immensely difficult in today’s Australia. The republic is now a token of progressive politics, nothing more. The emotions, energy and priorities of progressive politics lie elsewhere.
The nation must face the Australia Day issue and competing historical truths as a constitutional monarchy or not at all.