A mish mash of thoughts about Australia Day, culture and history
i started writing the following as an update on Facebook. Then it turned into a mini essay, and here I am. It is less a structured piece and more a series of thoughts with no beginning, middle or end.
I once heard Julian Burnside give the opening address of an art exhibition in Adelaide. Like the officials who spoke before him, he acknowledged the Kaurna people. But he also made a point of saying that, apart from regularly acknowledging the land of the traditional owners, we were doing pretty much nothing to give it back or respect their custodianship. Paying lip service to the rights of Indigenous people doesn’t mean much if that’s all it is.
I was born in Queensland. My recent trips there have demonstrated to me that, despite my best efforts to deny it, some part of that land flows in my spirit. I am moved by its colours, its smells and the gentle hum of the ground beneath my feet. I have stood in rainforests with trees as old as time itself and felt a quiet reverence and humility at my own insignificance. I’ve swum in creeks and listened to the whispers in the wind, and I’ve felt at peace. The mythology of the land that I feel must surely be compounded for a people whose cultural identity moves so fluidly within it. That they are routinely marginalised, brutalised and denied the respect of custodianship is an abominable reflection on this nation we are all supposed to be so proud of.
The idea of Aboriginal connection to land and country is treated scornfully by some, as if it’s all part of a nefarious plan to take even more than we’ve apparently already given them. In the same breath, such revisionists will declare their own pride in being Australian, this apparently mystical state of being that comes from being born under the Southern Cross. These same Proud Australians will accuse asylum seekers of being greedy and lazy fraudsters, as if their aspirational desire to live in a country free from war or oppression is somehow more calculated than our aspirational desires to prosper in a country we were lucky enough to be born in. Australians on welfare are demonised as being bludgers and wastrels, as if the only thing separating them from the kind of privilege that comes from private schooling, connections or even just a solid middle class upbringing is determination and willpower. I look around and see safe, comfortable Australians with more than enough feverishly hoarding their rights and privileges as if extending them to others means less for them. Is that the Australia we want to be proud of? Is that the Australia we come together to celebrate?
The whole Australia Day/Invasion Day thing is fraught and tricky. We are blessed to live in this country and enjoy all the benefits of democracy, subsidised health care and economic prosperity - but the cultural dialogue conveniently ignores the fact we’ve done nothing to earn or deserve it. I’m not suggesting we have to wear a black armband on January 26th and burn a flag in the backyard - but I do think it’s essential that any Australia Day celebrations acknowledge where we’ve come from, how we got here and who we continue to step on to build this nation.
We are blessed. But it is privilege, not entitlement, that allows us to mark this day not with a sense of loss but a slab of beer and a sausage sizzle.