A modest proposal: Why today should be Australia Day

As a journalist, I work most public holidays including Australia Day so it makes little difference to me what day it is celebrated on. But its timing on January 26 makes a great deal of difference to many people, and leads me to a modest proposal. Next year January 26 will fall on a Monday and we should celebrate it as such, but let’s make sure that it stays that way in 2016. From that year onwards, let’s move Australia Day so it always falls on the fourth Monday in January. Furthermore, we should have have a new holiday for the Sunday before. Let’s call it Survival Day, it wouldn’t be a paid holiday for anyone (though as a Sunday most people would be off). Australia Day would always be on a long weekend, and would continue to be a day of celebration occurring once every six or seven years on January 26. Survival Day on the day before would be a time for reflection and gratitude for all who have survived the collision of two completely different civilisations from 1788 onwards. Together these changes would take much of the heat out of the arguments for when to have the national day.

The end of January is an excellent time to hold the national holiday. Three or four weeks after the Christmas festive season, many people are in need of a long weekend pick-me-up before the school holidays end. I remember  living in Victoria in the 1980s and 90s when Australia Day was always on that fourth Monday of the year. This was, to some extent, a Melbourne thing not wanting to celebrate Sydney’s birthday. But it was also a way of ensuring it was always a long weekend. Many other states always celebrated on January 26 and Victoria was shamed for being out of step. I believe it is Victoria that was right and the others wrong: they should have all gone the other way.

I accept having Australia Day on January 26 is popular, particularly this year when it falls on the weekend and there is a holiday on Monday, to recover from our Australia Day excesses. But why should we have a hangover holiday? There are those who argue January 1 should be Australia’s national day as it celebrates the Federation of Australia in 1901 but that raises more problems than answers. For starters does News Year’s Day gazump Australia Day or vice versa? Will people back up from New Year’s Eve and does it mean two hangover holidays? Not to mention that if 1788 is problematic historically, 1901 is, if anything, worse.

Australia Day didn’t exist in 1901. It is a 20th century invention and it wasn’t until 1946 it got its formal approval from the federal government. Nowadays, there is little evidence the events of January 26, 1788 in Sydney Cove are important in celebrations of Australia national day. Whether it is people relaxing privately or the great and the good fulminating on the virtues that make the nation, never have I heard anyone drawing lessons or inspiration from what Governor Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet did 226 years ago.

The only people that really care about the 226th anniversary of the founding of Sydney tend to have a deep loathing of the day. On the 150th anniversary in 1938, Aboriginal leaders in Sydney found it offensive enough to launch “a day of mourning”. Only one white person attended the protest meeting at Australia Hall that day, but the evocative day of mourning haunted white consciences for decades afterwards. The descendants of those Mourners had a new message for the 200th anniversary in 1988. They called it “Invasion Day”, which turned the focus from people to land, and it became a thorn in Australia’s soaring confidence in the 1980s, rubbing inconvenient indelible ink stains into the glamour of the bicentennial, leading to the land rights battles of the 1990s.

More recently, Indigenous people gave the day a new twist by calling it Survival Day. This is a significant change of meaning that gives agency back to Indigenous Australians. Europeans came in 1788, they said, many of our mob died in the horrible collision that followed, but importantly, we survived, we are still here.  That long and painful story of Aboriginal Australia highlights why the First Fleet is problematic. It is an inconvenient reminder us of the massive lie at the heart of our history. In some respects, it is a shame Australia does not recall 1788 because in many respects it was the journey to the Moon of its day. Armed with the doubtful knowledge of only one skimpy journey to that part of the world 18 years previously, Phillip led a convoy of one thousand British people (three quarters of them convicts) in 11 ships on a voyage that took 8 months to get to the other side of the world. There were many significant dates in January 1788 that could serve for an anniversary. The Fleet first saw Australian land at Tasmania on January 9 (but had still no idea it was an island). They arrived at Botany Bay a week later landing in dribs and drabs. HMS Supply was the first ship in on the 18th, the convict transports arrived a day later, and the officers and marines brought up the rear on the 20th. Captain of Marines Watkin Tench noted that only one marine and 24 convicts died along the way. Tench had justifiable pride – the death rates on the following fleets were much higher.

Captain Cook gave the name of Botany Bay much thought. Originally he called it Sting-Ray Harbour, then Botanist Bay, but it was an inspired move to eventually come up with the euphonious Botany Bay. The colony remained by that name in British books, songs and legends long after it had outlasted Botany itself. Phillip was in no mood to applaud Cook; he could see that that this poorly watered ground was no place to start a colony. Cook’s description of Botany Bay was oversold and they moved the new colony a few miles up to the next harbour which they called Sydney Cove.

Phillip may have considered Botany Bay unsuitable for occupation but others did. When Phillip and his men first landed at Yarra Bay on the 20th, he was greeted by the Dharawal people who led him to water. This meeting was peaceful, but the French expedition under the Compte de Laperouse which remarkably landed in Botany Bay a few days later ran into trouble, and Phillip’s second in command David Collins noted La Perouse was “compelled to fire upon the natives.” It wouldn’t be long before the British had the same dilemmas.

When they arrived at Sydney Cove on the 26th, they found natives there too. Tench said they were initially curious and then became “more shy of our company.” It was clear to the Eora people these new strangers would not be leaving any time soon, and they shunned them as people who did not understand or respect local law. Phillip, Collins and Tench were all men of the European enlightenment and determined to treat the natives with curiosity, courtesy and the full protection of British law. However they were first and foremost British soldiers and they all accepted absolutely the Crown’s right to rule this new strange land. Phillip never felt the need to offer a treaty, because he had 200 armed marines to enforce British law in his little realm. On the one hand, Indigenous people were “sable brethren” with the same wants and desires as the British, but on the other they were “savages” with no obvious religion to guide them and no government to negotiate with.

Phillip had a desperate need to understand his neighbours, not least to avoid the colony starving to death. He resorted to kidnapping, first Arabanoo, and then Bennelong and Colbee to know the natives better. This treachery was quickly followed by disease. Current thinking has it the British did not bring smallpox to Sydney (Collins tried to blame the French) but instead came down the coast, contracted from the Malays who fished the north coast of Australia for beche de mer (sea cucumber) from 1720 onwards. Yet it seems too coincidental that it should arrive in Sydney 68 years later at the exact moment European invaders were making themselves at home. Whatever the fault, it was catastrophic and the Eora and other tribes came into town dying on their feet with tell-tale signs of pock-marked skin.

After a few years Phillip and Tench went home to England and with them went their enlightened attitudes. Their replacements had no reason to respect the black begging stragglers that haunted the growing town. When the Rum Corps paid their men with gifts of land, the sporadic violence on the edge of the settlement became outright war. This pattern of land allocation, friction with the prior owners, and then fighting for the land would be repeated across Australia for the next 130 years. A war that was never declared, it was never formally ended either but by the time Australia Day was celebrated nationally, all the land belonged to the whitefellas.

Australia swept its violent foundational history under the carpet. It was replaced by a powerful myth that placed Australia as an empty land populated by pioneers who tamed the land with the sweat of their brow. That white settlers were hardworking is beyond question, but so too is the war they faced to win the land. The Aborigines had to be crushed when they fought back because they were vermin polluting the land needed for sheep and cattle and also because the whites believed timidity would be taken for cowardice. Whenever the Aborigines stole this sheep or cattle, they were considered criminals who had to be taught a lesson. Where ever there was a white death, it was repaid in multiples. Aborigines that did survived to the 20th century were considered wards of the state, managed in every aspect of their lives, their lack of freedom only matched by their chronic poverty.

In the 1950s, the powers-that-be thought the way to fix that was to assimilate them into the white state. The Aboriginal people by and large resisted and began to fight back. Contrary to expectations they would die off, their numbers were now increasing. Because many had been scattered from their own country, they were growing a new Pan-Aboriginal culture to replace the tribal culture ripped from them.

Following the 1967 referendum, Indigenous Australians grasped a new level of political consciousness but have never forgotten the lessons of two centuries of oppression. They want not just equal rights as Australians but also Aboriginal rights as descendants of the First Australians. Prime Minister Tony Abbott used his Australia Day speech to start a national conversation about amending our Constitution to recognise that fact. But he has a curious reluctance to march into history to justify his belief. “While Australia Day formally marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, we celebrate something richer and deeper,” he said.  Abbott is mistaken – there is no deeper problem for Australia than coming to terms with its history. A referendum on recognition, must as its starting point, recognise the truth of our past. The war must be formally ended with a treaty and reparations. Moving Australia Day away from January 26 (at least six years out of every seven) would be a handy start.

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Donnelly applies the whitener to Australian history

A few years back there was an ad campaign based on people’s ignorance of Australian history. According to the ad, everyone knew George Washington was the first US president but no one could name Australia’s First Prime Minister. The ad itself ensured the name of Edmund Barton, if not his legacy, was at least temporarily remembered.

What the ad was trying to do was to encourage more interest in Australian history, but therein lies a problem and a likely clue as to why no-one knew his name in the first place –  it is a contested space and full of cobwebs many want to remain undisturbed. One of Barton’s first acts as Prime Minister was to introduce the White Australia Policy. He told the new national parliament in 1901 Melanesian Kanakas were inferior to Europeans and they (the white parliamentarians) were guarding the last part of the world where “the higher races can live and increase freely for the higher civilisation”.  Barton’s point of view was shared by most white Australians in 1901, but these days is inconvenient for anyone wishing to laud the positives of Australia’s past.

This is Kevin Donnelly’s problem when he speaks about the Australian education system. The curriculum should be impartial and disinterested, he said, and should be based on the search for wisdom, understanding and the truth. This is motherhood stuff and what he is really complaining about comes when he bemoans the lack of focus on western civilisation and Judeo-Christian teaching in Australian history. Donnelly’s complaint is codswallop, as religion and western civilisation pervade all aspects of our educational system. But given his focus on Australian history and his concern those values are being “airbrushed” from the education system, Donnelly might not like it, if the truth was really told.

How would you apply western civilisation and Judeo-Christian values to why the Europeans came to Australia in the first place, uninvited and with a self-given mandate to take over?  How much was western civilisation and Christian values at fault when those that did come to Australia felt superior to those that lived here before, unwilling or unable to recognise Aboriginal culture when they didn’t see cities, councils, cathedrals or crops? How might civilisation and culture explain why the Europeans destroyed what went before, treating Indigenous people like either vermin to be killed off, animals to be tamed, or children to be educated in white ways? Or why those that came in the name of religion at missions and churches treated natives like slaves and their children like souls to be bartered off to the highest bidder?

Why was it a Barton-led nation at Federation determined Australia would be for whites only, preferably British, and the Aboriginals were no better than flora and fauna?  Would that religion explain our nation’s fetish for war – as long as they weren’t ones that took place on native soil? Would the “Judeo” bit explain Australian anti-semitism and the refusal to take in refugees from Nazi Germany? And why did the various branches of the “Christian” bit hate each other so much and leave a legacy of bitterness and bigotry that spanned generations?

Maybe Donnelly might tell us which aspect of western civilisation and Judeo-Christian heritage explains why in 2014 we are such a pack of bastards when it comes to letting others into the country and then washing our dirty immigration laundry in other people’s sinks. Never mind complaining about the new $8000 media visa into Nauru, why not examine the circumstances by how we permit this vile charade to happen?

Maybe too, Donnelly might have a quiet word with the marketing managers at Aldi and tell them why t-shirts with “Australia Est 1788” mixing snappy corporate branding with unfunny, inaccurate history is not such a good idea.

But Donnelly will do none of those things, being more keen to wallow in the reflected glory of western civilisation and religion celebrated than explore the murky shadows of their massive blind spots. The common point in these questions is what we choose to remember. Donnelly wants us to ignore the elements that make us feel uncomfortable and bask in those that make us feel good. His views are a proxy for those who want to paint a clean veneer of white-picket fence philosophy onto the messy and complex canvas of modern Australia.

Kevin Donnelly is doing the donkey work for more powerful actors. This pandering to Anzacs and Gallipoli is leftover secret men’s business from the days of the Howard government with many of the same players in the same positions of power to finish off the agenda. This is not education, this is cultural indoctrination.

Forget the Preamble, what Australia needs is a Treaty

The new Coalition Government has been making noises on a referendum to change the constitution to recognise First Australians. The wording has yet to be announced but Prime Minister Tony Abbott is saying it would “complete our constitution rather than change it.” What Abbott means by completion rather than change is not clear but I assume it means the change will be ornamental rather than have legal force. According to deputy Julie Bishop, the government wants a “deep discussion” with the Australian people before agreeing to the wording but here’s a free tip if the changes are purely for show: Forget it.

I say forget it, not because Australian constitutional referendums usually fail, but because there are genuine things constitutional change could do to improve the situation of First Australians. The most profound change would be to turn the preamble into a Treaty, common enough in other settler countries, but the first ever in 225 years of European occupation of Australia. Unlike a flowery but pointless preamble, a treaty would acknowledge past failures and injustices and show sincere desire for a better future and more just relationship.

A Treaty is a political document between sovereign people and it was this difficulty that saw John Howard reject the idea in 1988 as an absurd proposition that “a nation should make a treaty with some of its own citizens.” The idea is far from absurd to many Indigenous people who see it as the first step in the recognition of the wars and dispossession of their country and the genocide that followed. Howard’s assimilatory ideas in the face of historical evidence were blatantly contradictory. His culture of forgetting was shared by his immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock who told ABC in October 1998 there couldn’t be a treaty because there never had been a war in this country.

Ruddock’s idea of war was flawed as was his view of a Treaty. A Treaty (also known by its Yolgnu name Makarrata) was long seen as an appropriate way for whites to acknowledge Aboriginal equality and prior ownership. In 1979 an Aboriginal treaty committee was formed by prominent mostly left-wing whites. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser offered to discuss treaty conditions with Aborigines while eight years later his successor Bob Hawke spoke of ‘a compact of understanding’. This whitefella idea of a treaty was rejected by the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils because of insufficient consultation with Aborigines, doubts about its significance and consequences, and because it would legalise occupation and use of sovereign Aboriginal lands by the Australian settler state. The Aboriginal Sovereign Treaty campaign in 1988 called for sovereign recognition and treaty. It was enshrined in the Barunga Statement presented to Hawke.

Barunga called for a treaty, a national system of land rights, compensation for land loss, an end to discrimination, Aboriginal self-determination and protection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Hawke promised a treaty but it faded from the agenda, replaced by land rights in the 1990s. John Howard fought land rights and firmly rejected treaty recommendation in favour of what he called ‘practical reconciliation‘. There was no reason the two couldn’t co-exist and indeed true practical reconciliation is impossible without a treaty framework. Australia has never negotiated the basic terms of peaceful coexistence between the first peoples of this continent and those who followed. Australia’s first peoples remain on the lowest rung of our society and are largely locked out of the wealth of an affluent country.

A Treaty that might address these failings has mutual obligations. For the Government it would mean responsibility to long-term funding and administrative support for education and health. For the Indigenous community it would mean taking primary responsibility for child protection, community justice and substance abuse. There are three key elements to a treaty: a) a starting point of acknowledgement b) a process of negotiation and c) outcomes in rights, obligations and opportunities. The hardest will be working out outcomes for a Treaty. A Treaty must be on the reasonable basis Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have been injured and harmed throughout the colonisation process and just recompense is owed. This means giving away power or land or sovereignty – none of which will be easy. It might mean governments stop fighting land claims or guaranteeing Indigenous seats in parliament or returning Aboriginal reserves or other Crown land to original owners. There will be resistance to some or all of these. But if not addressed, we will merely be coping by forgetting and moving an age-old moral problem to the next generation. Without a Treaty, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Islander people have difficulty advancing claims of title, compensation and sovereignty.

A Treaty is not just an important opportunity for blackfellas. It is also important to non-Indigenous people to come to grips with a challenging issue of great difficulty and complexity. Unlike a preamble which goes nowhere, a Treaty would help bridge the gulf, enable mutual understanding, and provide better public policy and better use of money. A Treaty would eventually be a source of pride, like Waitangi is to modern New Zealand. As a way of righting wrongs, it can also help in building a better nation, more secure in its identity, its symbols and values.