MUNGO MACCALLUM. Morrison does not get it.

Oct 1, 2018

His thought bubble about inaugurating a public holiday – well, perhaps not a holiday, but something or other – to celebrate indigenous Australia is about to be shoveled into the back drawer. That’s the one where the former Treasurer keeps his cast offs – the GST increase, the limitations on negative gearing, and of course the great corporate tax cut.

But at least some of those were worthwhile ideas. A conservative white man  telling the  indigenous population that they cannot have what they want, the Uluru statement, a treaty, even a proper offer of reconciliation but they will have to put up with a day off instead is not a worthwhile idea and it completely misses the point.

The debate is not about  fobbing people off with yet another patronizing gesture, it is about the date of Australia Day, and since Morrison says that is not negotiable, he would do better to shut up about it. January 26, the Prime Minister declares, is our birthday, when modern Australia began.

Well, that’s his version. But as Simon Richardson, the Byron Shire mayor who wants to change the date acerbically points out, the title is not Modern Australia Day – it is Australia Day, and many other Australians – and increasingly non-Indigenous Australians – do not regard it as an anniversary they can wholeheartedly embrace.

In hard historical terms, January 26 was the day (or close enough to it) when a foreign fleet landed to dump an unwanted convict colony. This was obviously not a celebration of  Australia, which officially did not yet exist. If it was anything, it was a demonstration of British power and conquest, a concept which only the most nostalgic Anglophiles (hello, Tony Abbott) can seriously endorse.

But for some  Australians this was an invasion, pure and simple, with all the terrible consequences (intended and unintended) which followed for the victims. Other will admit what John Howard called blemishes, but say that there is much to be proud of, and the positives should prevail.

And then there is the Morrison approach – get over it, worrying about it is no more than indulgent self-loathing,, let’s all sing and dance and wave our flags together. But even he must see that it does not work like that and never will; the date, with all its symbolism, can never be a truly unifying concept – as with so many of Morrison’s thoughts, he may wish it would be, he may insist it should be, he can even claim that it already is, but the facts show otherwise.

It should be noted that Australia Day hardly has a long tradition – January 26 only became a national public holiday in 1994. Morrison himself played down the significance last week: that was the day, he told his listeners, that a flag was raised at Farm Cove. Actually it was at Sydney Cove, but at least he got the harbour right. And since his electorate was named after James Cook, he probably knows that the anniversary commemorates not the great explorer, but Arthur Philip – a distinction whish eluded the Nationals deputy Bridget McKenzie.

If our leader is to intervene in indigenous affairs, an area in which he has shown no interest or empathy in the past, he might like to offer his troops a quick course in history, with all its conflicts and nuances. There is more to Australia Day than flag-raising – and more to Australia.

As Jimmy Little once sang, “Ceremony in the sand does not conquer a whole land – wearing someone else’s crown keeps your country in Australia. the ground.” But perhaps that’s a debate for another day.

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