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Issue #1763      February 1, 2017

On pride, shame and national responsibility

On January 26, 1788, 736 convicts disembarked from Captain Arthur Phillip’s fleet of British ships and staggered onto the shores of Sydney Harbour. They were mostly poverty-stricken industrial and agricultural labourers or members of their families.

Phillip immediately claimed the entire landmass on which he stood for Britain, even though neither he nor his rulers had a clear idea of its extent.

The British government saw the new colony as an appropriate place to dump convicts, who were to provide the unpaid labour force to gain valuable raw materials and agricultural produce, in a process that often resembled slavery.

Phillip subsequently informed the government with great enthusiasm that Sydney Harbour could accommodate “a thousand ships of the line”, i.e. British Navy vessels. It was, in short, an excellent place to exploit for the benefit of the empire.

Objections from Aboriginal inhabitants were to be dealt with if necessary by force and the fictional description of the land as “terra nullius” (empty land) provided a convenient legal pretext for the invasion.

The British government certainly had no intention of establishing an independent nation there. Indeed, Britain had recently lost its most valuable colony in North America to the inhabitants of that place, who maintained that taxation without parliamentary representation was unacceptable.

The impact of the new colony at Sydney was catastrophic for local Aboriginal people, whose numbers were decimated by introduced diseases, massacres and intermittent armed conflict with the new arrivals.

That tragic impact still haunts the nation. Its continuing legacy for Indigenous Australians is poverty, poor public health and education, high rates of incarceration and homelessness, social breakdown and the loss of culture and languages.

Choosing a different date

January 26, 1788 is a very important point in history. It was the beginning of the terrible ordeal of Aboriginal people, and in terms of political economy it also marked the first tiny step in the transition from primitive communism to nascent capitalism on the Australian landmass.

Australia Day has only been observed nationwide on January 26 since 1994. The current arrangements for the event focus almost entirely on achievements which have benefited the nation, but it is not appropriate to do so on that date because of its terrible significance for Indigenous Australians.

They have observed it as a day of mourning for 79 years and more recently as “Invasion Day” or “Amnesia Day” because their historical experience is virtually ignored in the formal activities of January 26.

Last week former conservative federal cabinet minister Ian MacFarlane pointed out that holding Australia Day on that day is similar to asking the Scottish people to celebrate the historical defeat of their ancestors by the English.

The Prime Minister rejected the idea of changing the date, but others disagreed, and protest demonstrations were held in many Australian cities.

Some argue that we should move the date to August 16. On that day in 1976 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam marked the transfer of Wave Hill Station to the Guringi people, pouring sand into the hand of local elder Walter Lingiari and saying, “I put into your hand part of the Earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”

The old man smiled and replied with wonderful grace: “Now we can all be mates again”. It was a great moment.

Equally significant was May 27, 1967, the day when Australian voters gave their fellow citizens, Aboriginal Australians, their long-withheld right to vote.

January 1, the day the colonies united to form the new nation of Australia, has also been suggested by some as an appropriate date. Others object that it’s already a public holiday, but the next day could be declared a holiday as compensation.

One Fairfax correspondent recently argued that the head of state is still the British monarch, so the right date for Australia Day should be the day we eventually become a republic. However, that argument implies we don’t have to bother changing the date until we achieve that status.

And unfortunately the discussion about the date for Australia Day has become clouded by arguments as to whether it should emphasise national pride or shame. Both arguments are based on a false premise, because in any nation’s history there are activities or practices that evoke pride or shame, and both should be acknowledged, albeit in different ways.

A different approach

Australia’s national day should involve recognition and consideration of past wrongs, present injustices, and achievements that have benefited our people.

But can any date in our history do this?

The very title “Australia Day” indicates that whatever the date is, on that day we should seriously examine the state of the nation. And that in turn depends on what we see as our national responsibilities.

We first assumed those responsibilities when we became a nation on January 1, 1901 and adopted the name “Australia”. Since then we’ve taken responsibility for many initiatives which in some instances contradicted the vice-regal position on the matter in question.

The government and the people must also accept responsibility for bad decisions and actions, The first federal government legislation introduced the white Australia policy. The clear message from the postwar Nuremberg trials was that accepting responsibility is not optional. It’s no excuse to say “I didn’t know” or “I was just following orders.”

And accepting responsibility is not optional. The government and the people are responsible for their decisions and actions, both good and bad. That was the clear message from the post-war Nuremberg trials of Nazi crimes. It’s not acceptable to say I didn’t know” or “I was just following orders”.

National responsibility is surely the appropriate theme for Australia Day, because its ambit covers matters of national pride and shame, the rectification of injustices past and present, and the recognition of outstanding achievements. It covers everything which impacts on the life of the Australian people.

Adoption of national responsibility as the theme of Australia Day could also accomplish the crucial objective of stimulating public discussion on all of the issues we face as a mature nation, including asylum seeker treatment, climate change, US-led wars, trade deals and our treatment of the nation’s First People.

There is much to support the idea of holding Australia Day on January 1, but only on condition that the theme of that day is recognising our national responsibilities as well as celebrating our achievements.

Next article – Lovett-Murray looks ahead

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