Local government leading the way on an important political issue? Who would have thought it? Well, anyone with an eye to federal ossification on Indigenous policy will welcome the move to stop calling 26 January ‘Australia Day’ as a potential circuit breaker.
Earlier this week the City of Yarra Council unanimously decided to avoid references to Australia Day. It will no longer hold citizenship ceremonies on that day but will mark the day with a ceremony to acknowledge Indigenous dispossession. The Victorian Opposition Leader called for the council to be sacked. Prime Minister Turnbull condemned the move as divisive, claiming that it repudiated the values of Australia Day – ‘freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity’. Turnbull warned that any council which failed its responsibilities regarding citizenship ceremonies could lose its right to conduct these ceremonies.
Not so long ago, 26 January was celebrated much less enthusiastically than it has been of late. It was considered a moveable feast and was tacked on to a weekend to provide a mini vacation. Perhaps the fact that it is a date of significance mainly to Sydney history caused some hesitation interstate. The day got a boost in 1988 when the harbour sparkled with tall ships, but it is debatable whether the day’s popularity has provided any opportunities for social improvement. There has been plenty of exploitation by politicians who for various reasons think that the day is essential to the fostering of patriotism, nationalism and jingoism and to proselytise about their version of Australian values.
The day has certainly had some undesirable consequences. The danger of fostering patriotism is that ultra-nationalists are encouraged to indulge their exclusivist beliefs and to mark the day in behaviour which can be described only as lowest common denominator. A cafe proprietor on the New South Wales south coast called out this behaviour by referring to ‘national dickheads day’. The people who took offence of course, proved his point perfectly by their abusive responses in graffiti and digitally. Mainstream media did not seem to think that an important issue had been raised for discussion. A national day held at any time of the year could encourage this kind of loutish behaviour, but there is an obvious link between 26 January and the tired old flag in which followers of certain extremist politicians wrap themselves.
There is a precedent for local government bodies taking initiative where leadership is lacking at state and federal level. In the 1980s, the years of the Reagan Administration in the USA, with the cold war blazing away, a strong nuclear disarmament movement formed around issues such as the proliferation of short range nuclear missiles in Europe and the notion of a ‘Star Wars’ defence system. In Australia, along with general alarm about the possibility of a ‘nuclear winter’, activists identified the US bases in the north as elements in US war plans. Then there was the issue of Australian uranium and how nuclear materials might contribute to proliferation. While federal cabinet ministers made some speeches urging moderation on world leaders and attempting to re-assure Australians, the strategic importance of the US alliance was not seriously questioned.
Local governments, perhaps because they are closest to the people who are nuclear hostages and defenceless against radiation, saw that federal parliamentarians were ambivalent in their concerns. Many councils became Nuclear Free Zones. They pledged to ban from their areas any material that might be used in the nuclear cycle. The aim was to have Australia become nuclear free by covering the continent with these zones. It could be that Yarra Council has begun a movement which could have a similar aim.
There is growing awareness among Australians that the dispossession of Indigenous people begun on 26 January 1788 continues today as appalling disadvantage. There is probably no need here to specify the objective indicators of this ‘gap’ as anyone with an open mind must be aware of them. Clearly however, it is the responsibility of every Australian to work to overcome these disadvantages. Individual conscience demands such action. So too does the obvious truth that Australian society generally cannot be fair, just and harmonious while we allow such disadvantage to continue. Those who think that the Yarra Council has exceeded its authority must speak plainly about what they are doing personally to address the injustices currently being suffered by Indigenous peoples. Otherwise, their bona fides are open to question.
Trappings of European empires prevent us appreciating the wonders of Australia. We should see every day as ‘Australia Day’. Every day we should be grateful for this unique land and for the custodianship of the Indigenous peoples. Daily we should be grateful for the spirituality which Indigenous peoples so generously share with us. We should enjoy the special privileges of Indigenous cultures and be grateful for their survival. The decision of the Yarra Council encourages positive, healthy thinking.
Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.