It's not Australia Day. It's Invasion Day & it's no occasion to "celebrate"

It’s not Australia Day. It’s Invasion Day & it’s no occasion to “celebrate”

Change the date
Earlier today I had an exchange with the middle of my three daughters, aged 7, that prompted me, not for the first time, to imagine what might be possible if more adults were capable of bringing a child-like mind to the world.

This morning’s conversation was about Australia Day.

Our youngest daughter’s preschool had last week given the children a pile of temporary tattoos of the Australian flag which the older girls discovered with great excitement this morning. Upon seeing them and groaning, I explained my issue.

“Why don’t you like our flag?” my seven year old asked.

“What I don’t like is Australia Day.”

“Why don’t you like celebrating our country?”

“I do like our country. It’s amazing. But the problem with Australia Day is that it upsets a lot of people. It’s held on a date that hurts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians because it’s the day their land was effectively taken away.”

“But it was always their land. It is their land.”

“That’s true but they have been treated very badly and excluded for a longer time. It hasn’t felt like their land. So this date is very painful.”

“Then why is it on this date? That’s not nice.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Why don’t we change the date then and have it on a day that doesn’t hurt peoples’ feelings?”

Indeed.

Now I imagine, from certain quarters, this might attract the inevitable criticism that this is evidently the result of subversive parental coaching from a leftie, Twitterati, bleeding heart, PC-brigade, feminazi seeking to infect her children’s minds and enlist them in a culture war.

The truth is, I do hope, (more than anything else frankly), to infect my children with a tendency towards compassion but this morning’s exchange wasn’t coached or prompted.

My seven year old reacted in a way that I’d suggest many children of her age would. Her answer is a product of the wonderful capacity of young minds to reduce apparently-complicated issues into very simple terms. Arriving at problems, baggage-less, as some children are lucky enough to do, has the advantage of clarity.

Simplistic as the above dialogue was, it’s instructive. The fact that changing the date is the obvious solution even to a seven year old is telling.

As is the fact that as a nation we are seemingly incapable of recognising that.

To the contrary, instead we proceed not just to annually “celebrate” a divisive and painful date in our history but we use the occasion to tell First Nations people why it’s not a painful date and cannot possibly be moved.

Sadly this symbolises, all too well, Australia’s treatment, to this day, of the traditional custodians of the land.

The 26th of January marks the beginning of the widespread oppression, dispossession and near-genocide of First Nations people. For Indigenous Australians it is a day of mourning. It always will be.

And it’s worth remembering that Australia’s history and treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is peculiarly shocking and shameful.

We are certainly not the only country that was invaded and colonised but, along with Fiji and Botswana, we are the only Commonwealth Nation in the world that still hasn’t signed a treaty with its First Nations people. In the year 2020, 250 years since Australia was incorrectly described as “terra nullius”, meaning nobody’s land, the constitution still doesn’t recognise Indigenous Australians.

And these aren’t matters of mere bureaucracy or legal technicalities: they underpin and entrench the exclusion of Indigenous Australians.

Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 10 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-Indigenous kids. An 18-year-old Indigenous male is statistically more likely to go to jail than to university.

Indigenous Australians comprise three per cent of the population but fill more than a quarter of our prisons. At one point in 2018, every single child in detention in the Northern Territory was Aboriginal.

Aboriginal women are particularly over-represented in custody: 33% of all female prisoners in June last year were Indigenous: they are imprisoned at 19 times the rate of non-Indigenous women. Between August 2018 and August 2019, seventeen Indigenous Australian died in custody.

Our Indigenous youth have among the highest suicide rates in the world, and the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is widening.

Indigenous Australians have referred to the inequity as the ‘torment of their powerlessness’. It is this country’s greatest shame.

It makes the “celebration” of Australia Day on 26th of January insulting and untenable.

It is compounded, exponentially, by the fact the vehement historical attachment to the date is farcical. Far from being an entrenched occasion it’s only been a national public holiday since 1994.

The 26th of January 1788 was the date Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove with the First Fleet and raised the Union Jack flag, claiming British sovereignty. The head of the Australian National University’s School of History, Frank Bongiorno, told SBS News that the current iteration of Australia Day is very new.

“[January 26] was very much a Sydney event, it was very much about NSW,” he said.  “As late as the 1960s, there was absolutely nothing in Canberra [on January 26], for instance … It wasn’t marked in any way there.”

Other states celebrated on different dates and it wasn’t until 1994 when it became the national public holiday.

The 26th of January is a lightning rod for the shameful and systemic oppression, racism and exclusion that First Nations people in Australia still face.

Changing the date is the easiest starting point in a desperately necessary and overdue process.

In May 2017, 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders gathered to present the Uluru Statement to the Australian public. It was an invitation to all Australians to walk together for a better future.

The hand-painted statement, that was greeted with a standing ovation, identified “Voice”, “Makarrata” and “Truth” as the three principles Aboriginal and Torres Strait consider necessary to repair and move forward together, as a united population.

“Voice” means a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to parliament – potentially an elected representative body of Indigenous Australians who’d advise parliament on policies and laws affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. “Makarrata” is about bridge-building and treaties, while “Truth” requires a national process of truth-telling.

Reconciliation, treaties and constitutional recognition have been debated at length for decades in Australia but the Uluru Statement is unique.

It was the culmination of an unprecedented consultation in which 1200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives took part in a dozen dialogues across the country.

It is a generous and compelling invitation.

Politically it hasn’t been accepted, not in the manner it deserves, but it was issued deliberately to the Australian public. Because it is the support and insistence of all Australians that can create the momentum necessary to begin a meaningful process of repair and reconciliation.

So, if like my 7 year old, you aren’t comfortable with the idea of celebrating Invasion Day, you would like to help #ChangeThe Date and walk together for a better future for all Australians get behind the Uluru Statement. Register your support for it here and spread the word.

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