What Is The Australian Story?


As we collectively sober up from yet another Australia Day weekend it is an opportune time to reflect on the ambiguities and inadequacies of celebrating a nation’s achievements and cultural diversity on a day that represents the beginning of what Indigenous academic Anne Pattel-Gray has termed "The great white flood".

Even from a non-indigenous perspective, our annual "celebration of a nation" sits oddly with the actual events of 26 January 1788 when the British Empire began its dumping of convicts here. It’s hardly a celebration of the founding of a nation, such as in the United States, or of the signing of a treaty (albeit one whose text has been continually disputed) such as in New Zealand.

Australia Day in its current form just highlights the confused identity of a nation founded on theft. A nation built on the shifting sands of stolen land.

This year the Australia Day Council named Professor Mick Dodson as Australian of the Year. It is to his credit that Dodson immediately highlighted the inappropriateness of celebrating national unity on a day that divides the nation between the survivors of invasion and the inheritors of the spoils of that invasion.

I’m not surprised that our federal Government and Opposition quickly shut down debate on this issue. It’s not only a politically "courageous" (to borrow a Yes Minister phrase) suggestion for governments to consider, it’s actually a reflection of our national reality: we don’t have a prospective new Australia Day date because we are yet to do something significant as a nation to mark our national maturity.

For a start, there is too much unfinished business. One of the reasons for Professor Mick Dodson’s appointment as Australian of the Year was his work on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Its 339 recommendations largely remain unrealised, not to mention the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report, and the various documents of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation: the Declaration Towards Reconciliation, the Roadmap Towards Reconciliation and the Council’s Final Report. There are still deaths in custody, there is still a disadvantage gap, there is still a gap in cultural understanding and respect. Reconciliation is unfinished.

We have, at least, apologised to the Stolen Generations.

The apology, along with the "welcome to country" at the opening of a new parliamentary term, does represent a critical shift in the body politic and meta-narrative of the nation. More than a decade after the Bringing Them Home report had raised the consciousness of Australians concerning the policies of Indigenous child removal, and after 10 annual "sorry days" to remind the public of the need to acknowledge the experience of the Stolen Generations within the nation’s story, the federal parliament and the prime minister of Australia finally said "sorry".

In response to the apology, Lorraine Peeters, a member of the Stolen Generations, presented Rudd with a glass coolamon. Within it was a message that not only thanked him for saying sorry but established a vision for the future: "We have a new covenant between our peoples — that we will do all we can to make sure our children are carried forward, loved and nurtured and able to live a full life."

As the former Chairperson of the Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, Muriel Bamblett, pointed out: "The use of coolamon as the carrier of this message is significant as coolamons were often used to carry newborn children in Aboriginal communities. Now it is the carrier of the future for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children alike".

Recently the Victorian Attorney General, Rob Hulls, aligned the apology with a new sense of meaning for Australia Day:

"The ambiguity of this sorrow and celebration, this duality, is one that this nation has really struggled to come to terms with fully in its relatively short life. Until early last year, we had not truly, formally, properly, begun to make right the wrongs ofdispossession, we had not truly acknowledged that the land that is now known as Australia was founded on a denial of its first peoples.

"That’s why I thank the Prime Minister for the moving and respectful apology he gave on behalf of the nation in federal parliament last February. Because of that simple act, this Australia Day is unlike any other. It’s one which finds us at a new beginning, the first day of a truly collaborative journey to maturity."

While I’m sympathetic to the Attorney General’s sentiments and appreciate his acknowledgement that sorry is but the first step, I believe there is more to do. If we are to avoid the apology becoming a "con job" as some respected Aboriginal commentators, such as Gary Foley, suggest, we need to move beyond the right words to implementing the right actions.

Indigenous policies — federal and state — are still subject to what Muriel Bamblett has termed "the fog of colonisation". National policies are largely tainted with the Howard government’s anti-self determination and pro-"mainstreaming" approach. The Howard government’s Ten Point Plan (or Eight and a Half Point Plan after Senator Brian Harradine managed some very minor amendments) still determines native title cases. And land rights appear to be a forgotten utopian dream.

So if we are to address questions of national identity, let alone a new date for Australia Day, we need to consider where we are at in the Australian story.

We need to feel both honour and shame about who we are as a people and interrogate our backgrounds and histories for both their buried treasure and skeletons in the cupboard. I’m not on about guilt. I’m not on about pity. But you can’t have pride if you don’t acknowledge shame.

Coming to terms with reconciliation is therefore not just a question of Indigenous identity but also non-indigenous identity. The terror of colonisation and terra nullius is a nightmare from which we all must try to wake. We non-indigenous people need to learn how not to be racist.

Fundamentally it’s about understanding how power and privilege affects us all. American feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh suggests that there are at least 50 ways in which white people are unknowingly privileged and are made powerful by being part of the dominant culture.

For example: I can arrange to be in the company of my race most of the time. If I need to move to rent or buy or if I need credit my skin colour will not be an obstruction to getting the property. I can turn on the telly and see my race widely represented. I can swear, get drunk, dress in second hand clothes, not answer letters without people saying how typical of my race. I can do well without being called a credit to my race.

Rather than participate in our historic ethnocentrism, cultural insensitivity and covert/overt racism I want to go down a different road. A road travelled by many white activists before me. A road led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait leaders of vision and strength who rarely get a look in on the media stage.

It’s only when we all take this journey that we will become citizens of an honourable, mature nation which values and respects the rights of its First Peoples and then — only then — all of its peoples.

And when that day comes we should celebrate and call it something. I suggest "Australia Day".

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.