ANDY HAMILTON SJ reflects on a discordant Australia Day anniversary and articulates the need for truth and recognition.
This year Australia Day follows closely after the recent defeat of the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. That defeat adds yet another discordant string to an already controversial history of the day and underlines the unfinished business entailed in it. Its ambiguity is reflected in the widespread dissatisfaction with the date it commemorates. This is expressed in the freedom given to their staff by many employers, including Jesuit Social Services, to transfer the free day to another date.
January 26 is the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour in 1778 to establish an English penal colony. 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. When it was named a national day, Indigenous Australian groups called it a Day of Mourning, in recognition of the alienation of their land.
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 evokes wonder at their resilience. It also recognises how the initial anxiety and hostility of the encounters between Indigenous Australians and the new arrivals 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 find expression 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 on their lives than that experienced by other Australians. Australia Day is not about triumphant 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 to gather all Australians in celebration. It instead intensifies our divisions.
The proper observance of Australia Day should include 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. Australia Day reminds us that 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.