I have survived my first Australia Day, 26th January, a Public Holiday when one is expected to eat barbecue lamb, drink beer, listen to Triple J’s hottest one hundred, adorn oneself with Australia flags and go to the beach. We indulged in a couple of these activities, but held off from writing a pro-Australian message across our bellies in yellow and green zinc, I also decided against wearing my Australian flag bikini, fetching though it is.
Australia Day has some other names; Invasion Day and Survival Day are those which I have noticed. These are quite apt as Australia Day is a celebration of the corresponding date in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in Sydney Cove with eleven ships and declared British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of what was known as New Holland. It was the start of 200 years of assault on Aboriginal communities, including the spreading of deadly disease, murder, forced dispossession of land and separation of families, attempts to eradicate indigenous culture and language and assimilation policies that would include “breeding out” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The Survival Day tag is because Indigenous people have survived this onslaught.
The impact of these events is still felt, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people disproportionately experiencing social issues, with high instances of substance misuse, emotional difficulties, mental health problems, unemployment, poverty, low educational achievement, identity issues, short life-expectancy and contact with the criminal justice systems.
I have also noticed 26th January referred to as Amnesia Day, implying that the issues I’ve described have been forgotten. I actually don’t believe that’s the case. While I don’t doubt that to some Australia Day is just about beers, barbecues and flags, there is an awareness of what Australia Day actually celebrates amongst many people. The National Australia Day Council (NADC) has a reconciliation plan, I am unable to comment on how effective this has been however it includes the admirable goals that Australia Day will;
- offer an appropriate mark of respect on the national day;
- nurture pride amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and all Australians; and
- raise awareness of the issues that still challenge the nation, such as the life expectancy gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait IslanderAustralians and the wider community.
It is good to be patriotic, provided the celebration of nationality doesn’t spill over into racism and xenophobia. A person should be proud of their heritage but should also recognise the faults of their ancestors and the enduring effects. We should look to ourselves and ask “what can I do to help rectify this?”, particularly when we continue to reap the rewards of past injustice.
There is a long way to go for Australia Day and it may never be the inclusive day that the NADC envisions if it is always celebrated on 26 January. However, with the will and action of enough people, perhaps Australia Day will not always have the shadow-tags of Invasion Day and Survival Day.