Australia’s national holiday commemorates not some heroic act, but the arrival of settler colonists who occupied, and settled that land, dispossessing the original and rightful inhabitants of the continent. Aboriginal sovereignty was never ceded; no treaty has ever been signed. Historic dispossession and violence, involving frontier wars and genocidal campaigns, decimated the Indigenous nations. There is struggle and heroism here, but mainly in the capacity of Indigenous peoples to resist and to survive.
Suppose I came to your home, invited myself in, made it my home, took your possessions, evicted or kidnapped or infected or murdered your family, and then celebrated the anniversary of my arrival each year — what would be the appropriate response?
And the answer is the same in the excruciatingly mind-numbing debate each year in Australia about whether the national holiday is appropriate.
(To avoid maximum excruciation, let us state the obvious. Clearly this analogy is not literal; no individual living today bears direct moral culpability for tragedies which unfolded in historical time. But it is precisely the symbolism, and national commemorations are pure symbolism, by design.)
The question in this mind-numbing debate may be an easy one, but even to ask it — of non-Indigenous Australians — contains a category error.
If I took over your home and then held a celebration there each year, it is not for me to say whether that celebration is appropriate. It is for you to say. I may well say it is not appropriate, but even if I think it is, your view counts for more; you have suffered the injustice. The correct answer is not just “no”, but also “it’s not for me to say”.
And so, to answer the question of the appropriateness of “Australia day”, the answers of Indigenous people are the most important. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but an opinion on the question which does not take into account the views of Indigenous people cannot be taken seriously.
Views of Indigenous Australians can easily be found. The broadest data I’m aware of are poll results from 2017, a survey of 1,156 Indigenous Australians about “Australia day”. (If you know a better or more recent poll I would be happy to update.) It found that:
- 54% of Indigenous Australians were in favour of a change of date. This may suggest that only a slim majority are against the event, but further results make it clear that the other 46% are far from being uniformly enthusiastic. For instance:
- The survey asked participants to associate three words with Australia day. The most chosen words by Indigenous Australians were “invasion”, “survival” and “murder”.
- A majority of Indigenous Australians said that the name “Australia day” should change.
- 23% of Indigenous participants felt positive about Australia day, 30% had mixed feelings, and 31% had negative feelings.
Despite the above poll results, in January 2018 the Indigenous Affairs minister (who is not Indigenous) claimed that “no Indigenous Australian has told him the date of Australia Day should be changed other than a single government adviser”. This says more about a politician being out of touch, than it does about the distribution of opinion among Indigenous Australians.
In contrast, Jack Latimore, editor of IndigenousX, the prominent online platform for Indigenous voices, comes to a rather different conclusion.
Based on his extensive experience and engagement with Indigenous Australians from across the social and political spectrum, his conclusion is worth repeating:
When it comes to the subject of 26 January, the overwhelming sentiment among First Nations people is an uneasy blend of melancholy approaching outright grief, of profound despair, of opposition and antipathy, and always of staunch defiance.
The day and date is steeped in the blood of violent dispossession, of attempted genocide, of enduring trauma. And there is a shared understanding that there has been no conclusion of the white colonial project when it comes to the commonwealth’s approach to Indigenous people. We need only express our sentiments regarding any issue that affects us to be quickly reminded of the contempt in which our continued presence and rising voices are held.
Nor is our sentiment in regards to 26 January a recent phenomenon. I have witnessed it throughout my life in varied intensities. Evidence of it is even present in the recorded histories of White Australia.
Indeed, the long history of Indigenous protest against a January 26 celebration goes back at least to boycotts in 1888, and numerous actions on the 1938 sesquicentenary.
Returning to the present, numerous community leaders and representative bodies have also given their views, many of which are available online. Below are links to some such views; of course there plenty more are easily found.
- Reconciliation Australia has said it is impossible for Australia Day to be an inclusive holiday while held on 26 January. “Asking Indigenous people to celebrate on January 26 is like asking them to dance on their ancestors’ graves.”
- Community leaders in remote Aboriginal communities in central Australia say the current date “celebrates illegal occupation” and that “What happened in [Port Jackson] was the start of the violence in Australia”.
- In Queensland, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island councils vary somewhat. Some do not celebrate January 26 — “We feel disenfranchised and don’t feel a part of it” — preferring to “spend our energy, time and money on the issues facing us on a daily basis”. Others have created their own Australia day traditions, while never forgetting the pain caused by colonisation.
- Six Indigenous leaders interviewed in January 2018 gave their perspectives. None argued for keeping the date as it is.
- Luke Pearson, founder and CEO of IndigenousX, has written numerous articles on the topic, including the following:
- Why we need to change the date of Australia day
- Keeping politics out of Australia Day
- What is Australia Day for?
Most recently he has argued against changing the date, preferring to “change the country first, and then we can talk about a date”.
- Pekeri Riska, co-founder of Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and Black Nations Rising, expresses her anger and argues Australia has a long way to go
Changing the date is an obvious, minimal, easy next step on the road to justice for Indigenous Australia. At the very least, maintaining the celebration in its current form is untenable. A minimal step towards respect for Indigenous Australia is to stop dancing on their ancestors’ graves.
Nor is it particularly opposed by the general Australian public. According to a December 2017 poll, most Australians are ignorant of the history of Australia Day, can’t guess what historical event happened on that day, and don’t really mind on what date it is celebrated. Half also think that the national holiday should not be held on a date offensive to Indigenous Australians (even though a plurality wrongly believes that January 26 is not offensive to Indigenous Australians).
And the survey apparently did not have “it’s not for me to say” as an option for non-Indigenous respondents — reinforcing the standard, annual category error.
I don’t believe in any patriotic holidays. But a patriotic holiday on such a terrible date needs to be moved, rebuilt, or abolished.