Date with enmity
The difference this year is that debate didn’t fizzle out in the weeks after January 26. The Change the Date campaign was vocal and successful for the entirety of 2017, which tends to suggest there has been a shift in community attitudes with respect to the date and, hopefully, what it represents.
But while it is to be commended that councils, community members and to a lesser degree Triple J are taking direct action to send a message of solidarity and support to the First Nations communities throughout Australia, it is critical to unpack how we discuss this date and what this date means to First Nations people. We need to be clear on the reasons we seek to change the date.
Put simply, changing the date is not enough if that is all we are going to do. But it is a first step and it must happen.
The date is, of course, representative of the commencement of the brutality that has been waged against First Nations people for 230 years, a singular brutality that continues today in many forms, overt and covert. The national holiday called “Australia Day” started a mere 23 years ago, which is why the dogged protection of this date and “ownership” of it by the nationalistic segment of the community – the government included – seems so confounding.
When it is unpacked and examined in light of the overarching Australian narrative, the confusion dissipates. This belligerent denial of the existence of changing community attitudes as they become more acquainted with the views, thoughts and plight of the First Nations communities through the tireless work of platforms such as IndigenousX, the only black media platform of its kind; The Saturday Paper; the Koori Mail; Independent Australia; NITV; BuzzFeed and Guardian Australia is very telling.
The malevolence behind the stance taken by the government is obvious to those who are well versed in the state of affairs for First Nations people in Australia. The publications above, which create space for First Nations voices, all have content that demonstrates that at the forefront of the governmental agenda is a need to maintain the narrative of Australia and its culture as one of a fair go and mateship.
In fact, Malcolm Turnbull made this exact nationalistic speech in his heated response to local councils taking the decision to change the date of their Australia Day celebrations. He subsequently threatened the councils with revocation of their right to conduct citizenship ceremonies, because apparently the national day and licensure over it rests only with his government, which continues to deny there has been a shift in community consciousness and sentiment with respect to this date and the broader inequity faced by First Nations people.
Also listening to the sentiment of listeners, Triple J recently announced it would be changing the date of its Hottest 100 countdown to an alternative date in January. Although many consider this the softest response Triple J could have taken, the government minister for communications, Mitch Fifield, has come out swinging, calling it “an attempt to delegitimise Australia Day”. He proves once again that the message is entirely lost on the government, which continues to push their agenda without regard to the constituents they apparently represent.
The original and continuing culture of this country is ignored in the national story and referred to frequently as having a special place in history – thus maintaining the convenient narrative that this country only began 230 years ago. The Turnbull government and governments before this one have always peddled the description of the day being about inclusive celebration of Australia and its multicultural demographic, without regard to the fact that it entirely excludes First Nations people.
The rhetoric used by those in power is reductionist. It pits First Nations people against the rest of the community. This politics of division is convenient, because it allows the government to control messaging in a racially charged environment of its own creation while at the same time using saviour language. You would be hard-pressed to turn on a television, pick up a newspaper or scroll your social media feed for too long without seeing a headline that paints First Nations people as dependent, incapable and troubled.
The public relations campaign waged against First Nations people since invasion has been a successful one for the Crown and, subsequently, for the Australian government. It has been justification for the atrocities in the decades following invasion and in more recent history been used to vindicate governments making policies for and on behalf of First Nations people with little to no community consultation. Notwithstanding the lack of choice for communities, the failures in Indigenous policy have been laid at the feet of First Nations communities.
Despite the constant disparagement of First Nations communities, the one unavoidable fact that can be quantified is that on January 26, 1788, the Crown not only contravened its own law but that of prevailing international law by laying claim and taking 7.692 million square kilometres of land that was already inhabited and cared for by the First Nations people of this land, belonging to more than 200 nations with a sophisticated and ecologically focused system of governance.
The effects of this theft of land have been hugely profitable for the Australian government but utterly devastating for the First Nations people of Australia, having suffered an 80 per cent population loss. Now, 230 years later – in the absence of any real measures to address the past and present injustices – the devastation remains and is freely seen by anyone who looks. On January 26, the country celebrates the date on which this began.
Australia has the highest rates of First Nations incarceration since the South African apartheid, we have rates of First Nations deaths in custody at the same level that predicated the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Our children are being removed from their families at a rate not seen since the Stolen Generations. Children are being tortured in custody and committing suicide at epidemic rates, and community empowerment has given way to a policy of individual wealth accumulation under the Coalition’s Indigenous affairs policy.
We represent just under 3 per cent of the population but receive 0.002 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product for programs that lack any First Nations community input or apparent benefit. In fact, to add insult to injury, the Indigenous affairs budget within the portfolio of Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion is currently being appropriated to fund a number of “Australia Day” events.
First Nations policy is paternalistic and further disempowers communities and individuals. If we are to believe unification rhetoric, this needs to change.
The Australian economy has enjoyed a steady increase in value over the past 230 years. The initial penal colony quickly burgeoned a livestock and pastoral empire to the immediate detriment of the First Nations people who became the enslaved workforce. The economy then expanded to include mineral mining and manufacturing, with the effects felt not only by the First Nations people but the environment. Ecological sustainability was not a concept considered by the white “settlers” and mass wildlife shortages followed. The ensuing technological era saw increases in mining activity and the service sector, with the economy growing and continuing to grow despite world economic troubles.
The success of the Australian economy is not down to economic management as the constant political posturing would have us believe; it is because a benefit has been derived from the First Nations people and the use of cultural lands without any payment. Only a small portion of the cultural lands have been returned to traditional owners and almost all of that land “returned” is vulnerable to native title extinguishment for mining if they are not already subject to the 99-year lease provisions. Communities remain vulnerable to government whim where water can be turned off, along with electricity and removal of essential services due to the notion that living a cultural life on country is a “lifestyle choice” for which the mainstream population should not have to pay.
The rhetoric of taxpayer dollars funding welfare and First Nations communities is deliberately divisive and paints a picture so far from the truth, given that we know that this country – land and people – were taken without recompense, treaty or even the consideration of negotiation. The wealth derived not only from the value of the land, but the use of the land for industry, the mining and export of minerals, and the use of slave labour, has all been without recompense.
The debate surrounding January 26 is much larger than the day, and the government is well apprised of this, which is why they doggedly cling to the date for what they claim it is rather than what it actually is.
The truth disrupts the narrative, so it must be buried, right?
Of course, the denial of anything that disrupts the narrative to which the government so desperately clings serves only to demonstrate the fragility of that narrative. It is why the date must change – so the lie of “celebrating” white settlement can end and this country can begin an honest conversation about what happened in our past and is still happening.
The Saturday Paper supports a boycott of January 26 as a national day of celebration. We call on businesses to allow their staff to work and on employees to take a day in lieu. The government is impotent on this issue, and it is not until the public takes an active stand that this will change. Going to work on January 26 takes away the social licence given to a date that needlessly hurts Australia’s First Peoples.
For more information, go to changedate.com.au.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 2, 2017 as "Date with enmity". Subscribe here.