Controversy about Australia Day intensifies. The ABC’s Triple J is consulting its listeners about moving the popular Hottest 100 Countdown from January 26th. Debate is taking place in council chambers across the country. Melbourne’s Yarra Council was savaged by Prime Minister Turnbull in parliament last week because the councillors had decided to cancel official ceremonies on January 26. But this week neighbouring Darebin Council voted 6 to 2 to follow suit to be similarly chastised by the federal government.
The heated rhetoric notwithstanding there is much public confusion about what is at stake. With Malcolm Turnbull leading the assault the defenders of the status quo accuse their opponents of being unpatriotic and not being committed to Australian values. There is of course no evidence that those who seek a new date are against the idea of a distinctive national day. It’s not the ceremony they resist but its location on the calendar. The same observation holds true for a great many of those who currently support January 26th. They want to join in public affirmation and would do so just as readily on another day.
This assessment is borne out by the widespread confusion of why January 26th was chosen in the first place. A survey reported in The Age in March this year found that while more than seven in ten voters declared that Australia Day was important to them many could not correctly name the event that it commemorated. The survey provided a choice of six alternative historical events to choose from. Only 43% correctly identified the first landing at Sydney Cove. One in five chose the arrival of Cook on the east coast in 1770. One in six picked the anniversary of federation. Seven percent thought the national day marked the signing of a treaty with the first nations. Almost as many thought it was the date that commemorated the moment when Australia ceased to be a British colony and two percent believed it celebrated an important battle in the First World War.
But clearly many of the public figures who rally to the cause have strong views as to why we should stay committed to January 26th. and to the arrival of the First Fleet .They remain stubbornly resistant to the consistent opposition of indigenous Australia and many others besides. At first glance it is possible to have a benign view of the British arrival. It had a limited, very local impact on the resident Aborigines. Arthur Phillip was officially instructed to treat them with ‘ amity and kindness’ and incorporate them as British citizens. But what is omitted from this conventional narrative is the truly tragic and portentous decisions embodied in the formal documents of annexation officially instituted on February 7th, 1788. Along with the assertion of sovereignty was the expropriation of all the private property across the eastern half of the continent. The Crown instantly became the beneficial owner of all the land. The traditional owners were stripped of ancestral homelands and became trespassers awaiting potential eviction. It was a decision which was replicated over the rest of the continent in 1824 and 1829.
It was truly an extraordinary and unprecedented coup. Because there was a massive expropriation it was also revolutionary in the literal sense of that word. For the first nations it was a catastrophe which predetermined much of the tragedy that unfolded with malignant slowness over the next two hundred years.
Big questions therefore press upon us. Why do so many prominent Australians want to go on celebrating events which had such disastrous consequences? How is it possible to argue, as Malcolm Turnbull did last week in parliament, that January 26 is a date which is infused with Australian values? Clearly we can identify and empathise either with the predators or the victims; with the agents of British Imperialism or the besieged first nations. If the first is it because we don’t react as though indigenous Australian really are our countrymen and women, our compatriots? Are there then deeper forces at play? Has Australia been unable to complete the process of de-colonization and still lives in the shadow of a derelict empire? Otherwise why would we want to commemorate its predatory descent on our own first nations?
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who has focused on frontier conflict between indigenous people and European settlers, and has written many books on that subject. His latest book is Unnecessary Wars.