Henry Reynolds: If We Are To Re-Think Australia Day, Where Should We Begin


The problems with Australia Day have been widely canvassed. They were graphically illustrated in Sydney in the bi-centennial year of 1988. On the morning of January 26, a vast crowd gathered to greet the fleet of tall ships recreating the arrival of the First Fleet. In the afternoon a huge procession of Aborigines and their supporters marched from Redfern to an exuberant rally in Hyde Park to mark what they called invasion day.

The question posed in 1988 remains. Can the two conflicting views of Australia ever be reconciled? Can indigenous and settler Australians find common ground, or more precisely, a mutually acceptable day of national significance? New Zealand’s Waitangi Day unites most Pakeha and many, if not all, Maoris.

If we are to rethink January 26 where should we begin? Clearly the arrival of the British fleet was an event of both local and global significance. There is little we can do to change that. It was by any measure a great achievement of maritime logistics. But what matters is how as a nation we relate to the historical events. What might be done to ease the ongoing, attendant contention?

It would seem fanciful to suggest that Aboriginal Australians should ever celebrate the arrival of what was for them, the invasion fleet, the precursor to the great catastrophe which progressively engulfed indigenous society right across the continent. Often heard suggestions that they should ‘get over it’ or ‘should move on’ are insulting rather than helpful.

So if we want change it must come from settler, or more precisely, from official Australia. What is needed is a reconsideration of long and deeply held attitudes. At the very heart of the problem is that many Australians are still emotionally attached to the long lost Empire, clinging to monarchy and a demonstrably colonial flag. They want to tell a story of well-meaning Imperialists who were instructed to treat the Aborigines with ‘amity and kindness’ and whose desire for peaceful occupation was frustrated by indigenous recalcitrance. Arthur Phillip’s undoubted humanity is endlessly called on to attest to British good will.

But this comforting view of benign Imperialism eschews that which it cannot accommodate. And in particular the decision made, in advance, in London to claim both the absolute sovereignty and ownership of all the property over half the continent. The indigenous owners were legally swept aside. Under the new regime they had neither property rights nor sovereignty. It was truly radical, revolutionary behaviour. Whether it was done under the illusion that the continent was largely uninhabited or because the Aborigines were seen as less than human scarcely matters. Chatter about gubernatorial good will and benign intentions are no more than whimsical distractions. When Arthur Phillip arrived in Sydney he carried in his dispatch case a prospective death sentence for many thousands of Aborigines.

Those decisions about property and sovereignty were cemented into the foundations of the Australian legal system. They had a great deal to do with the conflict over land that followed the European pioneers into every new district of the country for 140 years. Given that the Aborigines had no legal claim to the land on which they stood, there was no reason to negotiate with them. Because they had no sovereignty, they could not be partners in the sort of treaties which were commonly negotiated in North America and in New Zealand. It took the Australian Courts until 1992 with the Mabo judgement to overthrow the doctrine of Terra-Nullius. A significant, if forgotten, aspect to the case was that the Australia Act of 1986 had released the High Court from the requirement to defer to British precedent. The vexed question of Aboriginal sovereignty remains to be resolved.

So there is a problem with January 26 if it is to be commemorated in any more than a partial and partisan way. One great hurdle to overcome is an instinctive desire to defend the Empire. Why this is so over 200 years later is hard to explain. After all, Australians show no wish to defend British policies during the Opium Wars or the Crimean War or any other long-forgotten conflict. Many Australians seem to be incapable of identifying with the Aborigines and seeing them as patriots defending their ancient homelands against an over-powering invader.

Our attitude to British settlement is compounded by the fact that it was based on the mass deportation of convicts. They were not settlers in the normal sense. They did not choose to help usurp indigenous land. Their suffering was not grievous as that of the Aborigines. But they too were clearly victims of British Imperialism and they suffered disproportionately in the frontier wars during the first 50 years of settlement.

There are several symbolic and easily achieved ways in which the nature of Australia Day celebrations could be re-oriented. There should be public recognition of British legal usurpation and the disasters that followed. Even more potent would be the nation-wide call for a minute’s silence to remember the thousands of Aborigines and hundreds of Europeans who died in the frontier wars.

If they are too difficult to institute, it would clearly suggest that we need a new national 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.