Opinion

Claire G. Coleman
Bloody Australia Day

When I wrote my debut novel, Terra Nullius, back in 2015, I couldn’t have imagined it would lead to January becoming a month during which I cannot breathe. It is January when I am busiest. While kids are on school holidays, and their parents take their annual leave, Aboriginal writers and activists are writing pieces on Australia Day, and this year, perhaps even more than previously, scrambling to comment on the latest ill-informed and poorly thought out, unedited comments from our prime minister. Every moment of January is filled with defending myself and my articles on colonisation from attacks on social media, while attempting to use the momentary media interest to educate people about the true history of Australia.

By no means am I the only Indigenous voice writing and talking on the issue. Every year, Indigenous authors, writers, activists and artists use their platforms to fight against the white-supremacist celebration of the day genocide against our people began. Often it is the women, many of them younger than me, who fight hardest, who stick our necks out further. It is upon women the hammer falls hardest; it is women who the conservative types try to hound out of existence. I have seen blak women standing tall regardless, staying strong, while being harangued by those trying to shut us up.

Last year, in the build-up to what non-Indigenous Australia calls “Australia Day”, I wrote a piece for IndigenousX, an Indigenous-owned and -run media association celebrating Indigenous Australian excellence. That piece, “No, I Will Not Thank You For Your Invasion”, was an analysis of the concept that Indigenous Australians should be grateful for white people invading Australia in 1788, as much as it was a reaction to a personal attack on myself by Keith Windschuttle in Quadrant.

Late last year our prime minister of the moment, Scott Morrison, in an ill-considered attempt to shore up the already undermined idea of Australia Day, announced that Indigenous Australians can have a special day to celebrate our achievements and “contribution” – his word not mine – to Australia. “When I was with 60,000 or so other people on the streets of Melbourne last January 26 we were not complaining about a lack of celebration of our Indigenousness,” I responded in a piece in Guardian Australia, “we were protesting the celebration of the date when our lands were invaded and our cultures destroyed.” To me, it has never been about wanting an “Aboriginals Day” – technically we have built an entire week, NAIDOC. Instead, it is about deciding not to celebrate the day when the invasion, colonisation and genocide began.

On television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, on social media and news sites, in popular music, tens of thousands of words are written and spoken and sung by Indigenous people and our allies. And yet, for some reason, the country as a whole continually fails to understand why we want to stop the celebration of January 26.

To explain again what we are all sick of explaining, January 26 marks the date that the commodore of the First Fleet, Captain Arthur Phillip, took control of Australia for the British Crown. This was the beginning of an invasion, subsequent colonisation and attempted genocide of our people. This was the beginning of the Black War, the killing of tens of thousands of people and the oppression of the traditional owners. Over the next 230 years, culture was wounded beyond repair and languages were rendered extinct. Destruction of language and culture was done with intent.

That is what January 26 commemorates.

No other colonised country celebrates its national day on the anniversary of the day its invasion, colonisation and genocide began. At the very least, January 26 as Australia Day should be understood as disrespectful to First Nations people. When looked at less charitably, the choice of the date looks downright white supremacist.

Among the jingoism, the racism, the flag-waving drunkenness that always precedes Invasion Day – in fact on the very day after I saw my first window-flag of the year – this year Scott Morrison declared he will earmark some $6.7 million towards the national tour of a replica of Captain James Cook’s ship HMB Endeavour. Surely our PM is aware this week had nothing in particular to do with Cook’s mapping of the east coast of Australia, an understanding that renders the timing of his announcement little more than belligerence. But there’s plenty to evince that Australia, as a whole, lacks an understanding of its own history.

Perhaps Morrison intended to cash in on the average Australian’s complete bewilderment regarding what Australia Day actually commemorates.

 A 2017 survey by Review Partners revealed that only 43 per cent of Australians know which historical moment is celebrated on January 26. It must be the 21 per cent who believe the day celebrates “Cook’s discovery of Australia” whose vote Morrison is desperate to influence.

There is no fact in the assertion that Cook “discovered” Australia – he was not even the first non-Indigenous person to come here. That honour belongs to the Macassans from Indonesia who had traded with Yolngu people in the north for up to six centuries. Cook was not even the first European to come here, beaten by the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, whose maps he used to find the continent.

But this rot runs deep, this wilful misremembering. That became apparent to anyone who was paying attention when the National Party’s deputy leader, Bridget McKenzie, stumbled badly, telling the media Australia Day commemorates the day “when, you know, Captain Cook stepped ashore”.

Of course, Cook did not arrive on January 26, 1788 – that was Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet. Cook landed in Australia in 1770 and died nine years before the foundation date of the colony of New South Wales, speared to death in Hawaii on February 14, 1779.

You feel a responsibility, as an Indigenous writer, to correct Australia’s amnesia regarding the country’s history. I’m sure I’m not alone in the admission that I am sick of having to perform this labour. Using my platform, my words, to educate Australia is tiring. It is a necessary activity that will inevitably lead to me being attacked online.

When writing an essay recently – my entry into the Horne Prize, about my travels to the Northern Territory – I sought to use the platform to make a political statement. Its crux was a simple one – Australia still does not see Indigenous people as equally human with the rest of the population of the continent.

I believe celebrating Australia’s National Day on January 26 reeks of white supremacy. As does the common refrain when Indigenous people argue against celebrating the date – that First Nations people are better off post-colonisation. We are not. On January 26, the country is celebrating, as its identifying moment, the arrival of white people in a cultural identification with the doctrine of terra nullius – nobody’s land. Our intended destruction was implicit within the term.

There has never been any ambiguity regarding my view on this. As to where I fall in the divide between “Change the Date” and “Abolish Australia Day”, I am agnostic. In my opinion, the difference between abolishing the day and changing the date is not particularly vast.

Stopping the celebrations on January 26, whatever form that comes in, is an important first baby step in the deprogramming of Australia. Not because stopping it will be the end game, nor because it’s the most important issue facing Indigenous people, but because it’s a small change that, if it happens, will demonstrate that non-Indigenous Australia is starting to listen. Invasion Day – and all the debate, protest and tension that surrounds it – is a peak in the emotional labour Indigenous activists, artists and writers are putting into discussions over Australia’s racism. Those of us with a platform use what we have to fight against the attitudes that are tearing our nation apart. It is not the people fighting against celebrating January 26 that are tearing the nation apart; it is the celebration itself.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but what I want is for this to end. I don’t want to write about racism anymore. I want an end to racism in Australia. Australia can be better. It can respect Indigenous culture, respect the wishes of its Indigenous peoples, offer us treaty and stop fighting us on land rights. But until white Australia learns to treat other people with respect, there are people such as me who will never stop reminding you of the true history and nature of this nation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Bloody Australia Day". Subscribe here.

Claire G. Coleman
is a Noongar author whose debut novel Terra Nullius has been long-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize.