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Home » Analysis » Country divided over Australia Day date, celebrations for some and mourning for others

Country divided over Australia Day date, celebrations for some and mourning for others

Complex debate: “The complex relationship between white Australia and its Indigenous people makes the notion of Australia Day an abstract one at best.”

ON January 26, 1788 the British flag was erected on Australian soil. The First Fleet had reached its final destination.

One year earlier, more than one thousand convicts, civil officers, crew members and marines had departed England, destined for a new land.

It was the land Captain James Cook discovered a decade earlier.

There was no flag, no monarchy, and no gunpowder – just an ancient people who called it home.

For more than 40,000 years, Indigenous Australians had been forging a profound spiritual connection to this land.

They had cared for it wisely, and it provided them with shelter, water and food, and of course their weapons for hunting and self-defence.

They never damaged the land or overused it.

When the British exercised their claim to sovereignty over the land, the consequences were catastrophic for the First Peoples.

In the decade that followed the arrival of the First Fleet, it is estimated that the Indigenous population was reduced by 90 per cent.

They suffered under the violence, the dispossession and the foreign diseases carried by the British.

More than two centuries later, Aboriginal communities continue to be haunted by the ghosts of January 26, with some saying the past and present are inextricable.

Each year, the noise increases as pressure grows on the Australian Federal Government to change the date of its national holiday.

For some, there is nothing good about January 26.

“It’s actually a day for us to sit back, reflect and remember that Australia has a black history,” Brisbane’s Murri Ministry co-ordinator Ravina Waldren said.

“I know it’s a day of celebration for some, but for Aboriginal people it’s a day of mourning.”

Ms Waldren is among an increasing percentage of people who see Australia Day as an unnecessary provocation of a deeper, systemic problem.

By 1994, all Australian states and territories were recognising January 26 as a united public holiday.

From a commercial perspective it made complete sense.

Australia Day captures the simplicity of a casual nation; images of tanned skin, grilled meat and cold beer dominate the media.

But whether a date change will create any kind of positive and lasting impact remains unclear.

Anthony Dillon is an Indigenous academic at Australian Catholic University who sees the media from a different light.

“On January 26 the news is dominated by images of the protesters, protesting against Australia Day, and it’s certainly attracted a lot of interest,” Mr Dillon said.

“Why is it that for other issues such as poverty, violence, child abuse, sickness and filthy living conditions we don’t see anywhere near the same amount of interest or outrage?”

Mr Dillon questions the intentions of some protesters, and has little faith in the lasting efficacy of a date change.

“They say that it’s appalling that Australia Day is celebrated on January 26 and they feel so strongly about it that they’ve got to protest, yet, we don’t see the same outrage for other, what I would consider, more serious issues,” he said.

The complex relationship between white Australia and its Indigenous people makes the notion of Australia Day an abstract one at best.

David Miller, a Queensland representative on the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council, who has been a member of Murri Ministry for 24 years, is aware of the complexity of the debate.

“There are a lot of Aboriginal people who have misery and sorrows because of the impact the First Fleet caused,” Mr Miller said.

“It’s very hard for me to put it into words. What’s the best solution for this? Every time I think I’ve got a clear point in my mind, I think of something else, which disrupts that.

“It certainly isn’t simple.”

Written by: Nick Holt
Catholic Church Insurance

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