Dated politics of January 26
Writing this is hard. That is because Australia Day is hard. It’s been hard for me ever since I can remember. I’ve marched every year since I was a child. I’ve worn my Aboriginal flag shirt with pride and been sneered at. I’ve written about it for the past three years.
But this year seems different.
It feels more aggressive: more racial slurs and rallying cries, more vitriolic posts and opportunistic media. For the most part I want to turn off. I could use the full length of this piece talking about the slurs and abuse thrown at me. The website bandwidth wouldn’t be big enough if I went into what is thrown at my peers and other vocal Aboriginal people. But here is the thing: if I didn’t choose to, I wouldn’t have to engage in this debate. I have fair skin, an education and a safe roof over my head. Many Aboriginal people don’t have that. I’m one of the lucky ones.
I’m writing this because it fucking scares me to think that if people are saying such things, what are they actually doing? What are their actions? And how does that affect the people in the Aboriginal community who don’t have my privilege?
I’m writing this because even with the privilege I have, as a young, Aboriginal woman I’m worn down and confused. You can only get called “Abo” so many times. You can only have people tell you that Aboriginal people should be thankful for colonisation so many times. There is a limit to your capacity to have your cultural identity politicised. There is a limit to hearing everybody else talk about you and then being told you’re hijacking the conversation when you dare to speak.
I don’t know what happens when you hit the limit, but I know I’m close and other members of my community must be. This year feels like a tipping point and I’m scared because I don’t know what happens
after it tips.
January 26 represents the beginning of the colonisation of Australia. Colonisation that included genocide, land thievery and systematic oppression. January 26 represents the beginning of the abuse of Aboriginal people and their freedom being taken away under paternalistic colonial rule. January 26 is the reason Kevin Rudd said “Sorry” – because of all the children who were stolen from their families. It’s the reason we had Mabo. It’s the reason we have the Northern Territory intervention. It’s the reason we’ve had stolen wages funds around the country, because it’s not just that we all live in a country built on stolen Aboriginal land, it is about the lives of Aboriginal people that built it.
There is no denying this history. Even Malcolm Turnbull has said that Aboriginal people’s relationship to the past is “tragic” and “complex”.
January 26 is a continuation of celebrating British colonisation. It’s a rallying cry of denial that tries to justify colonisation as a good thing for our country, despite all the lives it cost and continues to cost.
The protest against national celebrations has been happening since the late 1800s. Aboriginal people knew what was happening to us was wrong. We knew that to fix a problem, the first step was to acknowledge it.
People make the argument that many of that First Fleet were convicts, that they shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed or denied their right to celebrate Australia when their ancestry here started from forced and violent circumstances as well. These people aren’t wrong. But if the past is damaging for so many of us, why deny it by trying to pretend it was a glorious feat of Western advancement and not just call British colonisation what it was and is – a human rights crime for all of those involved, from the poor people forced into slavery, separated from their families so Britain could create a new colony, to the Aboriginal people who faced a decades-long genocide and war?
As long as we keep celebrating the past, it’s always going to affect the future. When we glorify the same power structures that led to dispossession, when we revere the violence and glorify the white supremacy and harsh imperialism relied upon, then that is who we are and who we are going to be.
We need bold ideas and the braveness to think hope for all is possible. I truly believe that as a community we are capable of this; I don’t believe our leaders are. There is a complete lack of leadership in this country when it comes to Australia Day, and inherently that also means a lack of leadership on Aboriginal affairs and the conversation around race.
Our leaders are reactionary. I wouldn’t say they are pandering to the dregs of society, because they are themselves the dregs of society. Our politicians are using Australia Day as a political playing card, in their parties and outside of it. Unfortunately, this includes some Aboriginal politicians. Linda Burney acknowledges the date is problematic but says there are more important issues facing Indigenous Australians.
This rhetoric is not supporting Aboriginal people; it is silencing Aboriginal people because we are the people who are saying that the problem with Australia Day is important. The rhetoric is saying, “Don’t you Aboriginal people know what’s good for you? What about your incarceration rates? Your health issues? Your poverty issues? Why aren’t you focusing on those?”
Well, first of all, when we talk about all the other issues that you say are more important than Australia Day, you don’t listen to us. Or you listen, but you don’t care until you can use them to silence us in another discussion.
This is one of the arguments being used to create the image of a war between the Blacks about what we want. This has been a myth as long as I can remember. It’s one of the key justifications for paternalism and the micro-governing of Aboriginal communities. This year, it seems to have gotten worse, and maybe that’s because democracy seems to have been forgotten in the divisive politics of the now. One of the watershed moments for this has been Jacinta Price’s involvement with Mark Latham’s very sad Save Australia Day campaign.
To steal from Margaret Atwood, a war between the Blacks is as good as a war on them. Divide and conquer, as the old saying goes. We can see the language that is being used to de-legitimise Aboriginal people who protest against Australia Day or for their rights, who dissent against neo-conservatism and white nationalism. There are the “Coconuts” and “Self-Identifiers”. There are the “Bush Blacks” versus the “City Lattes”. What these classifiers are doing is categorising and essentialising Aboriginal people; all the years of civil rights protest for self-determination get taken away. Really, you may as well call me an Abo, because these articulations are pretty much the same: you’re less than us, we have more power, we are going to decide what you are.
Yes, there isn’t a consensus between all Aboriginal people, but there is unity. As someone who grew up in the Aboriginal community, I do think the majority of us believe we should be listened to and have the same value as everyone else. When it comes to Australia Day, we all have different approaches. I believe in Change The Date, other people believe in abolishing the day all together. What we do have in common is arguing that Australia Day is not a celebration of Australia. To us, it’s about our survival through genocide and dispossession. It’s the invasion of our homes and the violence that came with it that has led to the huge disparities between our human rights and the advancement to the rest of Australia. It’s a day of mourning, for the past, for the present. For me, it’s a day of mourning because if this country can’t even think to include us in the national day, if it continually ignores our rebuttals and tells us we aren’t valued by that exclusion, I mourn for a future and I mourn for the hope we are denied while others celebrate.
Symbolism may seem ineffectual, but that’s because so often in this country it is confused with tokenism. So often change comes from the heart, and we need big decisions that open up people’s hearts at a national level. As a country, our leaders are failing us. They are creating division because it’s so much easier to attack others than to actually do anything.
Malcolm Turnbull has said a “free country debates its history”. He says it “does not deny it”. At the same time, he says he is disappointed in those who object to the day – the same people with the tragic and complex past. Discuss our history, he says, but don’t challenge us. We see you, but don’t open your mouth because it’s divisive.
As long as you are busy hating each other, blaming each other, you are unable to question the bigger picture. We are being bogged down in a war of words, in a repetitive game. One issue is not a catch-all for every other issue and nothing is ever going to improve until we stop judging every decision, every action, every political topic through the same puritanical lens.
Our politicians and commentators are creating a narrative that says because Aboriginal people dared to dream, that because we dare to ask to be included, to ask that you listen to what we want and not what you tell us to want, that we are dooming ourselves to fail.
Simultaneously, they are underestimating the Australian community and its ability to care about each other. We know the Australian people are capable of great change, from the 1967 referendum to marriage equality, when it comes to the inclusivity and equality of each Australian in this country.
If the current argument against changing the date is centred around the view that the minority doesn’t count, then exactly what country are we celebrating? Because if our symbolism can’t even come from a place of compassion, how do we ever expect to see that in practice?
I’m sorry if this is the diatribe of an angry Aboriginal woman. Maybe I’ve fallen into the trap of those who don’t want to change the date: make the Blacks look angry and unreasonable. It’s disappointing that an Aboriginal person can’t have an opinion about their own humanity without it being politicised.
There is no single simple solution. There is no majority. A country isn’t built with a majority, it’s built with people who feel and love and just want a good life. I have faith in the Australian community to come together. We’ve done it before. We have incredible achievements as a united country.
If our national values exclude some, they will never be about everyone. If Australia Day is really a celebration, an exercise in unity and diversity, a commemoration of what a great country we are today, the first step is to symbolise that and have it on a date that includes everyone.
By changing the date, we would be acknowledging the past. We would be saying, “Aboriginal people, we see you, we hear you. We value you.” And maybe then we’d start to value each other.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 29, 2018 as "Dated politics". Subscribe here.