The last Monday in January: updated arguments for an Australian treaty

An Australian citizenship ceremony in Esk, Qld on Australia Day 2014 (photo Derek Barry)
An Australian citizenship ceremony in Esk, Qld on Australia Day 2014 (photo Derek Barry)

I’m pleased Australia Day is a Monday this year – it should always be the last Monday in January. Australia Day celebrates summer, it celebrates Australian achievement and diversity, it celebrates sport, it celebrates the long weekend, it celebrates the end of summer holidays and back to school, work and routine for the year. What it does not do is celebrate the uninvited arrival of the British in Australia over two hundred years ago. January 26 is the date in 1788 that Australia’s first jail was opened and given the name Sydney. Initially a dumping place for Britain’s riff raff, it took British authorities 50 years to realise sending people to Australia was no punishment. With its sunny weather, good prospects, easy land and its promise of gold, governments were footing a travel bill for eager adventurers. A labour-poor Western Australia continued to import prisoners but eventually also admitted defeat. Over time convictism became a stain that history sought to whitewash. With Federation on January 1, 1901, the new nation ignored Australia’s raison d’etre as it defined itself as a southern Britain. Blacks outside and inside were not welcome to share in its bounty. The six colonies had gradually encroached on all Aboriginal land out-competing indigenous people for resources. The fiction of British law across Australia as imposed by Arthur Phillip on a tiny sliver of land in 1788 was made real in small and often violent installments far from official scrutiny.

History is a handy heuristic for making sense of the world and white Australia needed a new history to go with their gleaming new possession. They created a new history of a determined and resourceful people that tamed and conquered a tough but empty land. Borrowed from America, the myth was called pioneering. It was a useful mythology and inclusive of women and men, and British and non-British could aspire to it. But it excluded the Aboriginal people. Land was something they had managed for 2000 generations. But they had no writing, no money, no leaders. Europeans ignored them where they could and took the land.

They brought agriculture and technology but were unprepared for Australian weather, soils, and the needs of native plants and animals. Much accumulated Aboriginal wisdom died with loss of habitat while Europeans held a pig-headed belief in their own superiority. They reminded themselves of this with the help of their history. A terra nullius of space and mind covered the difficult bits of violence and land appropriation. The new constitution of Australia was informed by white superiority and its few mentions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people considered them fauna requiring the “protection” of the states.

The new Australians were creating other laws kept foreign “blacks” out of the country. All sides of politics supported White Australia, the right influenced by social Darwinism, the left by worries of cheap labour. Newly federated Australia didn’t want full independence but didn’t want interference from London. Britain’s brown empire was not welcome. The process of changing from colonists to nationalists was slow. Adventures such as the Boer war and Gallipoli were seized upon by recruits as escapism from a dull existence and a sense of patriotism to the mother country. But when the trickle of deaths in Turkey became a flood, nationwide grief was weaved into a new thread of remembrance.

The legend of Anzac Day was suitable material for history, unlike convictism and the war against the blacks. Remembering January 1 as Australia’s founding day never took hold, but Anzac Day did and today is more inclusive than the date of Phillip’s arrival in Sydney. January 26 and April 25 are both invasion days but while the Turks have forgiven the Australian state, Indigenous Australians have not. War with Turkey was acknowledged and ended, war in Australia was never admitted and never ended. If war is politics by other means, then treaties are the way to resume politics after wars.

Australia is in dire need of a treaty. I say that as someone born in Ireland where a treaty ended a war. It was an imperfect treaty and started another one but it was broadly supported because it was broadly useful. It helped Ireland forge its own path and it helped England end a long and costly struggle. Colonial powers have often used treaties but only where they were deemed useful. The Waitangi treaty was useful to Britain as a way of overcoming an inconvenient declaration of New Zealand independence. But a treaty was no use to a 1788 prison colony under armed guards nor was it useful for a white Australia of 1901.

Indigenous Australians did not lie on the dying pillow as predicted and marched back into history forcing whites to re-examine the past. The pre-invasion population of 750,000 went down to 60,000 by 1921 but has been on the increase ever since, with close to half a million Australians now identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Aboriginal constitutional achievement peaked in 1967 with the removal of two clauses that enabled them to be counted in the census and managed by commonwealth powers. Supporters marshalled a range of arguments. including shame, to convince the white community.

Around the same time anthropologist Bill Stanner started calling out the lies by omission in Australian history. Stanner called it the “great forgetting”, a structural telling of history that deliberately left out crucial bits. A new historiography emerged putting Aboriginal people into the centre of Australian history. The research from colonial times was confronting and not flattering to settlers or government. There was a backlash from conservatives as their cosy relationship with the past was threatened. The new history was damned as too negative against the achievements of old Australia.

White Australia was slowly dismantled in the 1960s and 1970s as the country welcomed settlers from all over the world. In the 1990s, landmark decisions like Mabo and Wik removed the fiction that Aboriginal people did not own the land before white settlement. No court will touch Phillip’s 1788 statement of possession but there is recognition this is a country of two peoples, one which suffered significant structural disadvantage. The counting of Aborigines in the census revealed deep problems against social indicators of health, education, and employment.

These problems remain profound 50 years after the referendum, especially in the nation’s Aboriginal towns. “Closing the gap” on these indicators is a necessary part of any equality agenda but must appeal to the heart too. Symbolism is detested by many conservatives who prefer to concentrate on “practical reconciliation”. But a body cannot be healed if the spirit remains sick. A constitutional preamble might have success as a symbol but it would need to have some serious meat on its bones. It must acknowledge there was a war and it must also acknowledge it is now over. It must hurt otherwise there is no atonement. It must give away things. It must be owned by Indigenous people. Yet it can’t be too radical or it wouldn’t get the 80% support of non-Indigenous people it needs to pass a referendum. There should be a guaranteed two percent indigenous MPs, a return to some form of self-government, and a promise for the states to support land claims or at least not fight them. A treaty must invoke the same triggers that got whites in large numbers to vote yes in 1967 despite the dryness of constitutional language. It must be real and something all Australians would be proud to support. The day of its signing should become Australia day – I suggest that day be always be celebrated as the last Monday in January.

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