Australia Day takes us back to our beginnings, beyond the arrival of the First Fleet, to the arrival of Captain Cook at Botany Bay. It also invites us to reflect on what happened later when the European settlers cultivated and developed this new land and encountered both Indigenous Australians and others different from themselves.
We have had ample time to give an accounting. We have observed the mixed effects of clearing, planting, grazing, damming, mining and urban growth on Australia. We have also seen how the marginalising, killing, fencing out, and taking children away from their families and patronising Indigenous Australians have affected their descendants. We have seen the coming and going of the White Australia policy and, more recently, the way our treatment of asylum seekers has defined the other as hostile.
The questions posed by the image of the first fleet remain alive, not simply as a way to understand our past, but also to shape our future.
They now confront us as citizens of the world and Australians. The two major challenges facing the world have to do with kindness to strangers and with care for the natural world. They are not simply about adjusting our national settings but concern the future of life on earth. Care for the environment, the resolution of violent conflict and the responsibility of well-endowed individuals and nations to the marginalised of our world will increasingly become conditions for decent human living anywhere in the world.
Our local acceptance of Muslim Australians as full and welcome citizens, for example, is not simply a matter of decency. It will affect our security and prosperity. The way we deal with racial and religious difference in Australia is tied to the conflict in the Middle East. If that continues to express itself in hostility between Muslims and Westerners, and the major Western intervention is through military force, the consequent flight of people from violence and the rivalry between interested nations with interests in the area will inevitably affect the world economy and promote terrorism.
A prosperous world economy will depend on the encouragement of reconciliation between different Muslim groups in the Middle East and between Muslims and others in Western societies, including Australia. This must include cooperation in caring for the millions of people who have fled from violence. A little Australia devoid of respect and compassion for the other won’t do.
The need for Australia to respect the needs of the environment in the face of climate change is now clear. It is a local challenge, affecting particularly the management of water to meet the demands of cities and enable sustainable agriculture and industry, and the patterns of settlement along the coast. This would be a taxing task even without the effects of climate change.
But Australia’s welfare will depend also on its cooperation with other nations in reducing emissions. This is illustrated by the way in which intolerable pollution in Chinese cities is now affecting the funds on which Australians rely for their retirement. In the future such links will become increasingly evident and exigent. From this perspective the diversion of Australian resources to fund the expansion and export of coal seems both self-defeating and reckless.
If the image of the beginnings of Australia was one of a boatload of powerful Europeans coming to exploit the land occupied by a primitive people, a better image of future Australian Days might be of Australian sending parties to Indigenous settlements and other nations to discover how to cooperate in the great projects of reconciliation between people and of people with nature.