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Australians All Let Us Rejoice... In Changing The Date

For January 26 to be a celebration, we need to forget what it really commemorates.

25/01/2017 1:44 PM AEDT | Updated 26/01/2017 6:10 AM AEDT
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"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and others have been organising major, organised protests on January 26 since at least 1938."

We all want a day on which we can come together as a national community to reflect on where we're at and celebrate what we are: a wonderfully diverse, open and free society.

But January 26 is not that day.

Many of us don't think too deeply about it. We assume that January 26 is all about barbeque lunches or Hottest 100 countdowns or cricket at the Adelaide Oval or just a day off, if we're lucky enough to get one.

But for January 26 to be about those things, we need to forget what it really commemorates: the First Fleet's arrival at Port Jackson in 1788, and Arthur Phillip's raising of the Union Jack on the land of the Eora nation.

It's only by forgetting that historical moment that we can ignore that January 26 is the anniversary of the beginning of an invasion -- an invasion that had catastrophic and tragic consequences for all the peoples and nations who had lived here for tens of thousands of years, and for their descendants.

Whatever else the history of the Australian continent since 1788 has been, it's also been a history of killing, colonising, dispossessing, converting, "protecting", assimilating and discriminating. All these horrors have been perpetrated by non-Indigenous people on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And January 26 is a potent symbolic reminder of that history and our efforts to airbrush it.

Non-Indigenous Australians have been very adept at forgetting. Within a few decades of colonisation, our legal systems had convinced themselves that Australia was "terra nullius" before the Europeans arrived, and therefore that what happened afterwards was a "settlement". For the first six decades after Federation, history books barely contained any references to First Nations people or their experiences at all. I was still being taught at school during the 1970s and 1980s that Australian history was uniquely peaceful, that there had been no wars here.

The forgetting was so complete and so entrenched that the anthropologist Bill Stanner famously called it the Great Australian Silence -- a "cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale". To continue to celebrate Australia Day on January 26 is to participate in that cult of forgetfulness.

But that Silence is not universal. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and others have been organising major, organised protests on January 26 since at least 1938. Beginning in the 1960s, historians have returned to the historical evidence and corrected the record. The High Court dispensed with the fiction of "terra nullius" in 1992.

Most of what non-Indigenous Australians thought they knew about First Nations' cultures and connections with this land has been proven to be false. At school I learned that Aboriginal society was essentially a hunter-gatherer society -- one of many colonial myths that have been used to justify the dispossession of their land. Bruce Pascoe, among others, has shown the extent to which Aboriginal nations managed and cultivated vast tracts of the continent, to regulate all aspects of their relationships with the land from food production to bushfire control. Historians have obliterated the myth that the European "settlement" was in any way peaceful, or that there was somehow little resistance.

Australia's past still gets divided -- falsely -- into "black armband" and "white blindfold" history. Holding an Australia Day celebration on what is also known as Invasion Day or Survival Day is inherently divisive. It locks us into one position or another -- either we're celebrating "Australia Day" and forgetting its history, or we're remembering and resisting.

Unlike other nations with similar histories, Australia has never undertaken a national truth and reconciliation process which would force us -- and our governments -- to acknowledge the history of what has happened here and its contemporary consequences. There have been Sorry marches and official apologies and commitments to Closing the Gap, but sorry without consequence -- without a genuine reconciliatory process -- is not enough.

It means the history continues. Right now, Australia is locking up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at up to 24 times the rate we lock up everyone else. Right now, Australia is removing children from Indigenous parents at a rate that is higher than during the periods of the Stolen Generations. Right now, Australia is still subjecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities to levels of policing and and welfare surveillance that very few other groups endure.

At the very least, all Australians should be able to participate in a national celebration.

While it's true that I'm not directly responsible for the bloody history, I do benefit -- like every non-Indigenous person -- from the original act of dispossession. To ignore this is to diminish all of us.

There is much unfinished business. The Union Jack is still part of our national flag. There are still sections in our Constitution which authorise the states to disqualify particular "races" from voting, and which authorise the federal parliament to pass laws discriminating against particular "races". There is still no formal Treaty. And we still celebrate "Australia Day" on January 26.

At the very least, all Australians should be able to participate in a national celebration. Moving it away from January 26 is not that difficult. Australians all let us rejoice... in changing the date.

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