Something didn’t feel quite right when I woke up on the morning of “Australia Day” this year. You know me, any excuse for a piss-up and I’m there with bells on, but this year felt different. Sure, we had only organized a small gathering of friends at a local pub, followed by a nice lunch – our way of celebrating our appreciation for a country that we migrated to thirteen years ago and have made our home – but the problem was, my social conscience wouldn’t shut up.
For those who don’t know what “Australia Day” represents, according to the Australia Day Council website, it is “about acknowledging and celebrating the contribution that every Australian makes to our contemporary and dynamic nation. From our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – who have been here for more than 65,000 years – to those who have lived here for generations, to those who have come from all corners of the globe to call our country home.”
Unfortunately, what the day represents for our Indigenous population, (and an increasing percentage of the rest of the population), is the day in January, in 1788, that the British invaded our country and went on to murder, rape, and throw them off their land. It is why they call it their “stolen” land.
“Australia Day” is an event that causes immeasurable grief for some people, and courts controversy for many others. It is a day that divides our diverse nation – in particular, for those who believe that the celebrations deny the real and terrible truth when Australia was colonized.
A change of date was proposed recently – of which I am whole-heartedly in favor – although, not so much for the radical accusations made by some that the majority of Australians remain indifferent to the treachery caused to the forefathers of our land. In spite of the obvious bias in the documentation of that period of history – which was taught until recently in our schools (I am told) – every Australian I have met has been sensitive to the truth and does not want any part in its distortion.
For many, the “Invasion,” is not what Australia Day represents.
We are a multi-cultural nation. “Nearly half (49%) of all Australians were either born overseas (first generation) or have at least one parent born overseas (second generation)” – The Guardian – many of whom are immensely grateful for the opportunity to live here. For some, their immigration has been a life-saving event, but what they can’t do is turn back time and change history, in much the same way that the Germans can never fully atone for what took place in their concentrations camps during the second world war.
What we CAN do is move forward and put right the inequalities that continue today: we can narrow the gap in standard of living between our indigenous people and the rest of the population, and reduce (hopefully) the number of aboriginals that take their own lives each year, or serve prison sentences for minor crimes.
We can keep the pressure on our government to listen to the voice of its people (and voters), in the way we did for marriage equality.
Progress has been made. There is an evident desire to embrace the country’s indigenous history and culture. “An ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ is an opportunity to acknowledge, and pay respect, to the Traditional Owners and ongoing custodians of the land – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” (Commonground) is made at most events and council functions; there was a national “Apology To The Stolen Nations in 2008” and morning ceremonies on Australia Day are being led by our Indigenous people; likewise, Naidoc week “celebrates the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
The arts, in particular, strive to support Indigenous theatre, media, and writing. There is also targeted recruitment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander candidates, as well as positive moves to promote more Indigenous people into politics and leading roles in the community.
But the crawl towards progress is frustratingly slow; as it is for inequality between the genders.
There is no doubt that Australia’s reputation on the world stage in terms of discrimination is tarnished. Our history of ribald sexism, racism, and ongoing discrimination of the LGBTQIA community, (this week called out by Anna Wintour), has been well-documented. And while I would like to deny the existence of such ongoing behavior from my cosy position of white privilege, I can’t. As an active member of the Twitter community, I witness to it every day.
But in defense of my adopted country, such discrimination is not the cancer of Australia alone. I truly believe that our irreverence to “difference” is changing, and that, at heart, we are a good country – albeit a young country, that has historically lagged behind other western countries when it comes to education and social conscience. Our geographical location – which promotes insularity; the climate – which makes us like the Spaniards ie. a bit too relaxed for our own good; and our national pride, is perhaps why we have come to the party later than other, more progressively-thinking western countries. But we know that we are late developers, and there is an eagerness to do better.
Our harsh migration policy is the most obvious contributor to our reputation as a racist country, even though, (in my experience), few educated people condone detention centers such as Nauru – and hopefully, the next federal election will prove that, even if a solution to the problem is far from clear-cut. But our awareness of discrimination, the true story of Australia’s colonization and our responsibility to our Indigenous people is improving.
During our lunch, in a discussion about something else, a friend pointed out the importance of not staying neutral. Change, she argued, can only be affected by loud voices and activism – something I strive to do in other areas of my beliefs! And writing this post has clarified what Australia Day means to me. Celebrating it is my way of demonstrating my gratitude for this beautiful land we live on, and that’s why, next year, I will choose an another day to celebrate it.