Elizabeth Laughton discusses the conflict around Australia Day
Words | Elizabeth Laughton
In 1938, on the 26th of January, white Australians celebrated the 150th anniversary of Governor Arthur Phillip arriving in Australia, while members of the Aboriginal Progressive Association held a ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’. As the celebration of the 26th became increasingly formalised as Australia Day, counter demonstrations gained increasing traction, observing the date as Invasion Day or Survival Day.
This year, thousands of Australians gathered in major cities to participate in demonstrations for Invasion Day. Many demonstrations were coordinated by different organisers, their intentions varying from asserting Indigenous sovereignty to condemning ongoing discrimination against and demanding equity for Indigenous Australians. Some organisers call for the government to change the date to one less overtly associated with imperialism, while others call for Australia Day to be abolished altogether.
Another imperative of some demonstrations is to develop a treaty between the Australian government and Indigenous Australians. In other cases of British colonialism, British authorities would ‘conquer’ the native government or establish a (usually deceptive) treaty with the pre-existing inhabitants. Indigenous Australians were neither conquered nor made party to a treaty. Instead, the British employed the doctrine of terra nullius, meaning ‘no man’s land’, to declare there was no government to conquer or treat with. We now know terra nullius was a false narrative, the land was very much inhabited by many diverse groups of Indigenous people who had self-defined systems of governance, management, and land use. The ignorance of these systems was one of the first disservices done to Indigenous Australians.
Today, Invasion Day demonstrations are platforms for Indigenous Australians to speak about other colonial disservices to their ancestors, themselves, and their children. For instance, Uncle Robbie Thorpe, a Krautungalung man of the Gunnai Nation, told a Melbourne crowd, “this is a day of mourning for our people”. He noted that the day began with an early dawn service commemorating Indigenous lives lost in massacres and frontier wars between Aboriginals and British colonisers.
Muruwari and Budjiti man, Bruce Shillingsworth, told Sydney crowds about the pain of watching Australians irreversibly damage the land over the last 250 years, especially when Indigenous people sustainably managed it for tens of thousands before. He also noted the increasing lack of water access for rural Indigenous communities. Other speakers across the nation shared anecdotes of family members who had died in custody, poor access to proper health services, and everyday instances of racism and discrimination.
Despite these anecdotes, Melbourne demonstrations were met by opposing protestors who wore shirts declaring “Gov Arthur Phillip Did Nothing Wrong”. They also held signs printed with the Australian flag and the message, “Australia Day should never be changed.” Unsurprisingly, any pictures I have located of these opposing protestors suggest the group’s demographic is exclusively white men.
Invasion Day demonstrations coincided with the national bushfire crisis, with many photographed at rallies wearing P2 masks to protect themselves against bushfire smoke. Much debate has emerged from this crisis about the inclusion of Indigenous fire practices in land management. In comments about Australia Day, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian called for greater reflection on Aboriginal practices which she said “sustained this land for millennia”. This commentary from a Liberal premier demonstrates the increasing understanding that we need Indigenous custodianship to protect our communities and repair our damaged earth.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison used his Australia Day address to assert that regardless of our lineage, “We’re all together as one and we can all together be proud.” He also suggested Australians use the 26th to “rededicate” themselves to “this great land”, echoing the nationalist sentiments that make Australia Day unbearable to those who have been subjugated for the nation’s ‘success’. To Morrison, ignoring Australia Day is ignoring history. Odd, because that is exactly the opposite of what Invasion Day demonstrations are urging us to do.
Better yet, in 2018, Morrison recommended keeping Australia Day and introducing a new national holiday for Indigenous celebration. He suggested, “We don’t have to pull Australia Day down to actually recognise the achievements of Indigenous Australia, the oldest living culture in the world; the two can coexist.” Sounds like he missed the point then, too.
For opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, debate about moving Australia Day is “counterproductive”. While he says we need to recognise Australia Day as “a difficult day” for Indigenous Australians, he thinks we need to “seek ways to unite Australia, rather than engage in culture wars”. How moderate.
Meanwhile, Albanese’s local council in Sydney’s inner west voted to move Australia Day celebrations to an alternative date. While Mayor Darcy Byrne understood some residents would be upset about the change, he suggested that overall, “there’s nothing to be lost here but there is a better and more sombre, more respectful way to mark the day in the inner west”. This council isn’t the first to move Australia Day events to a less controversial date, the City of Yarra council in Adelaide and the Marion council in Melbourne made similar moves years ago. After consultation with community members and Indigenous stakeholders, these councils have made public efforts to shift celebrations of nationhood, and without the world ending as a consequence. The success of these councils in changing the date for their electorate suggests that local may be the way to go, especially while federal leaders prioritise patriotism and colonial legacies over considerate management of the national piss on day.
Moving forward and after Invasion Day demonstrations, how can non-Indigenous Australians support Indigenous Australians and their truths?
We can start to honour Indigenous truths by listening to them. Listen to Indigenous speakers, attend rallies, buy their books, and share their posts. Look for reconciliation councils in your local area and see what kind of work they’re up to when it’s not Australia Day. Join them in petitioning local council members to change the date of electorate events. Informally grant Indigenous people custodianship by researching and donating to their grass root fire funds and trusting and sharing their advice on land management. We’ve got a long way to go as a nation, especially if we want to do better. Healing the wounds of colonialism is one big continual step forward, and honouring, respecting, and including Indigenous people in the governance of their land is the next.