Day of discord

Australia Day in its present context is not about triumphant
shared achievement but about unfinished business.


By Fr Andy Hamilton SJ, Eureka Street consulting editor and writer at Jesuit Social Services

This year we celebrate Australia Day in the shadow of the recent defeat of the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Federal Parliament. That defeat adds yet another discordant string to an already controversial history of the day and underlines the unfinished business entailed in it. As an event associated both with leisure and division, it bears reflection.

January 26 is the anniversary of the safe arrival in 1788 of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour to establish the English penal colony there. It also marks the beginning of the dispossession of the First Peoples and the destruction of their culture. The celebration of the anniversary changed over time. Twenty years later a boisterous celebration on the eve was followed the next day by the Rum Rebellion in which soldiers arrested Governor Bligh.

January 26 was only one of many Foundation Days celebrated by the different Australian colonies. Australia Day was instituted on another date during the First World War to support the Australian troops, but by the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Fleet it was celebrated on January 26. By this time, too, Indigenous Australian groups described it as a Day of Mourning for the alienation of their land. It has increasingly become a day of national division and not one of unity. After the introduction of Australian citizenship to replace British citizenship in 1948, those awarded citizenship attended ceremonies by local councils including on Australia Day. The date of these ceremonies has in recent years been successively politicised, made exclusive, and relaxed in response to the disputes about its suitability as a national day. 

When seen within this history Australia Day is a suitable occasion for recalling the destruction as well as the construction involved in colonisation and its legacy for all Australians. It evokes the loss of the First Australians as they endured despoliation, infection and discrimination, and inspires wonder at their resilience. It also recognises how the initial anxiety and hostility of the encounters of the new arrivals with Indigenous Australians have shaped the subsequent institutional and personal relationships between Indigenous and other Australians.

The impact on Indigenous Australians and their descendants of being deprived of land and culture continues to be experienced in the higher level of discrimination and imprisonment and the lower life-expectancy, health, access to education and work, and ability to participate in the decisions that impact their lives than those experienced by other Australians. Australia Day in its present setting is not about triumphant shared achievement but about unfinished business.

The decisive vote against the Voice to Parliament has not changed this reality. Indeed, it has highlighted the incoherence involved in declaring January 26 a day that will gather all Australians in celebration. It intensifies crucial divisions. 

The proper observance of Australia Day should perhaps also be messy. It includes the freedom to enjoy the sunshine that is given to the just and unjust, to Indigenous and other Australians alike. It should also include recognition of the history in which the first inhabitants were dispossessed and marginalised with consequences that continue to be experienced by their descendants. The effects of colonial settlement need to be acknowledged, the harm suffered by Indigenous Australians to be owned, and a reconciliation sought that enshrines in culture, law and administration their unique status in Australia.

Fr Andy Hamilton SJ was recently made a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association. 

This unusual composition used as the banner image with this story shows Yananyi Dreaming, a Qantas Boeing 737-800 that is part of the national airline’s ‘Flying Art Series’ featuring Indigenous designs on different aircraft. The first of the Qantas planes painted in this style was Wunala Dreaming, a Boeing 747, in 1994. Photo: David McMahon

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