Change The Date

Ignorance in the name of national pride is still ignorance. And it’s ugly. Much in the same way that discrimination in the name of a religion makes no sense, using national pride as an excuse for celebrating Australia Day on January 26 makes no sense. A look into some history (of which every Australian should be aware, but it’s just not spoken of enough) of this issue should show you why:

Interestingly (and something I only recently learned), “the First Fleet, the group of ships which left England to create a penal colony abroad, actually arrived in Botany Bay somewhere between the 18th and 20th of January 1788. However, settlers decided to relocate on the 25th of January in the hopes of finding a more suitable area to construct their colony. They travelled to Sydney Cove and the next morning, on the 26th, Sir Arthur Phillip and a small entourage of marines and officers claimed the land in the name of King George III” (Pearson, L. and Verass, S., 10 Things You Should Know About January 26).

In case you’re thinking this is just another new outrage that the trendy leftists are onto, there have been Indigenous protests of Australia Day dating back to 1938, the 150th anniversary of the British invasion. “We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community”. According to the National Museum of Australia, we even forced some Indigenous men to reenact events of the First Fleet landing at the 150th anniversary in 1938. Yes, at that time, and up until 1967 when a referendum was held to ensure that the First Australians were counted equally as citizens under section 127 of the Constitution, Indigenous communities were not regarded as citizens of the land they had lived on for more than 40,000 years. Incidentally, that referendum was a rare success, with more than 90 per cent of Australians voting ‘yes’ to delete two racially discriminatory references in the Constitution. Further work remains to recognise Indigenous people in the Constitution, with discussions ongoing for the last 20 years.

1988-aboriginal-protests
Aboriginal protests on Sydney Harbour on Australia Day celebrations, 1988 (courtesy: 10 Things You Should Know About Australia Day)

Even if you’re looking for the tradition argument of celebrating Australia Day on January 26, it has only been consistently celebrated as a national holiday (in all states and territories) since 1994. Yes, only 23 years ago. It would hardly be an issue to find another date for a celebration that’s only been known in its current form for 23 years, especially for celebration of an event that dates much earlier than this.

Allow me to point out some further realities – for those that think the Indigenous community gets everything their way and has an advantage over us non-Indigenous – the Indigenous community, while only being about 3 per cent of overall population, make up 27 per cent of the national prison population. There is around a 10-year difference in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people (do I need to point out whose favour this is in?). The non-Indigenous community has a 12 per cent higher cancer survival rate. Indigenous children aged 0-4 years have a 1.9 times higher mortality rate than non-Indigenous.

In 2008, Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed non-Indigenous adults were more likely to have attained at least Year 10 or basic vocational qualifications (92 per cent) than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults (71 per cent), and were over four times as likely to have attained a Bachelor degree or higher (24 per cent compared with 5 per cent). What can education lead to? While it’s no guarantee of a self-sufficient life, it’s certainly a promising start. In fact, this ABS data shows that “while nationally, Indigenous adults are around half as likely to be in full-time employment as non-Indigenous adults, as educational attainment increases, the difference between the employment outcomes reduces”. Education levels also appear to impact the level of drinking habits with lower rates of acute risky/high risk alcohol consumption (binge drinking) being associated with higher rates of educational attainment (interestingly, the opposite is true for non-Indigenous people). And, education levels are also crucial in relation to housing status – nationally, Indigenous adults were over five times as likely to be living in an over-crowded dwelling as non-Indigenous adults, and less than half as likely to be living in an owned home (with or without a mortgage). At higher levels of educational attainment, these differences reduced. For example, Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults with a Bachelor degree were nearly equally as likely to be living in an owned home.

For those that think the Indigenous people needed our intervention, they seemed to exist successfully for 40,000 years before the British arrived (one of the world’s longest surviving cultures, if not the longest). It was only with our arrival (and the subsequent taking of their land and way of life) did they start to face the undeniable social issues they now face.

So, what are the alternative dates we should use? There’s plenty to choose from and the debate should now focus on these (Sivasubramanian, S., Eight Alternative Days to Celebrate Australia Day That Are Not January 26):

  • January 1: in 1901, the day six British self-governing colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia. In my opinion, not ideal as a new date.
  • February 13: in 2008, then-current Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd formally apologised to the Indigenous people who were forcibly removed as children from their homes and parents’ care and placed in Church missions or adoptive white family.
  • April 11: the day in 1973 that the “White Australia” immigration policy was abolished by the Gough Whitlam government.
  • May 27: the day in 1967 when the referendum asking whether Aboriginal people should be given the right to make laws and be accounted for under the Constitution occurred. The country voted with a resounding 90.77 per cent in favour of the changes. Until then, Aboriginal people were denied several rights, including the right to vote or to be counted within the human census. They were accounted for within the animal population until then.
  • June 3: Mabo Day. This perhaps has the strongest appeal as the alternative date. On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled in favour of Eddie Mabo’s case which overturned the legal stance of “terra nullius” (a Latin term meaning “nobody’s land”) and acknowledged native Indigenous land rights. Though the day is already marked as a national holiday, it may fit better as a public holiday.

While the majority will still be celebrating Australia Day on January 26, I hope that we can at least advance the understanding of this issue without ignorance. I was recently told that we’re being over-sensitive about this and that it’s just another thing we all get too easily offended by. Of course, this is easy for us non-Indigenous people to say – we would hardly know or understand what the Indigenous community feels on this day – I’m not even going to suggest that I have the slightest understanding of what they go through when they see a nation celebrate on this day, but I’m prepared to educate myself on why they feel this way and then decide accordingly to join them in the call for change. Not as an offended citizen, but as one who seeks true unity and peace. That’s what this is about – bringing us all together in an all-too-divided world with educated and empathetic minds. I might be asking for too much, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never be answered.

Note: I have intentionally attempted to not use the term “Indigenous Australians” as I am aware that some of the Indigenous community do not use “Australia” to identify with, given that this is the name given to the land that they already lived on.

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