The Politics    Monday, January 25, 2016

It’s time to change our traditions

By Sean Kelly

By emilykreed Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Let’s celebrate Australia - but not on 26 January

A week ago I was talking to a friend of mine about the crazy circus that is Donald Trump. I was telling him that I was glad that our public debate did not often extend to such extremes. It would be very difficult for someone running for leadership of this country to put forward those kinds of radical views and succeed.

My friend, who was born overseas, happens to love this country enough to have become a citizen just a few months ago. This, however, he said, was one of the things that consistently annoys him about his adopted country. Australians like to congratulate ourselves on the fact that we are fairly sensible and progressive, he said. But that’s a trick of selectivity.

I argued with him, at first. America’s gun laws are, to me, crazy, the national debate clearly unhinged. The fact that capital punishment is still practised frightens me. Whether women should have a right to abortion – even in cases of incest and rape – is still a live political debate, which seems nuts. Add healthcare and our social safety net into the debate and, well, thank god we live in Australia.

The truth is, I think, a lot of us go around assuming Australia is some kind of utopia of reasonableness, where life is pretty good and pretty fair. And to a large extent it is. It’s certainly easy to feel smugly superior to America, and I reckon a lot of us do.

But, as my friend rightly pointed out, that requires keeping in place some pretty huge blind spots.

Many of my good friends still cannot get married in Australia, for no reason other than that the person they love is of the same sex. This is nonsensical discrimination suffered by thousands of people across the country. That fact alone mocks our national commitment to “a fair go”.

The cruelty inflicted on asylum seekers who want to make our country their home should be the cause of national disgust. You don’t have to believe in completely open borders to agree that our treatment of these vulnerable human beings is awful.

My point isn’t that America – where same-sex marriage is legal, and whose most important newspaper condemned our harsh immigration policies – is better than Australia, or vice versa. I don’t think declaring a victor is particularly constructive.

But the comparison is useful because it might just offer a little prick to our sense of complacency – and particularly so at this time of year, when most of us like to celebrate the things we like about this place.

Because being a patriot, in the sense of genuinely loving your country, means keeping your eyes open, by deliberate effort, to its faults as well as to its glories. Celebrating those things that make you genuinely proud, while remaining committed to making changes that could make you even prouder.

Tomorrow is Australia Day, the day to celebrate those glories, but also a time to remind ourselves of our blind spots.

Australia Day itself, of course, is one of our largest blind spots.

Most years I celebrate Australia Day, usually hanging out with mates listening to the Hottest 100, and I’ll probably be doing so again tomorrow. But for the past couple of years I have found it increasingly hard to ignore the fact that this celebration is taking place on perhaps the worst possible day for it.

26 January is the day that the First Fleet arrived in Port Jackson. Or, to put it another way, it was the beginning of white settlement of Australia, an event that was disastrous for the indigenous peoples of this land. Murders, deaths from disease, children taken from their parents – these are what followed. The effects are still felt today, in homes in every state. As Stan Grant has pointed out, “an indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school”. (If you have not watched Grant’s speech, I urge you to stop reading this and do so. You will not see anything as powerful this year.)

Most Australians who celebrate tomorrow will simply be giving thanks, in a way, for the aspects of this country that they love. They will not be meaning to celebrate the beginnings of so much misery for so many Aboriginal people. Nothing could be further from their intentions.

But as long as our day of national celebration is held on the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival, it will remain a source of injury and insult to many indigenous Australians, who have suffered enough injury and insult already. Martin Flanagan put it well when he wrote that celebrating 26 January is our Confederate flag.

That is why our political leaders should move immediately to shift the date. We’re a young country, with young traditions – they shouldn’t be so hard to change. Australia Day has only consistently been a national public holiday since 1994 (though it was known as Australia Day before that). Why couldn’t our new PM announce tomorrow that he is interested in looking at such a move?

This morning I woke to the news that the leaders of our states and territories have come together to support a republic. This is a good thing. Having an Australian head of state is long overdue.

But this should also be an opportunity to reset Australia Day. There are several suggestions around already, of course, for what the new date should be, including the very good proposal that it be the date a treaty with indigenous Australians is finally signed. Another possibility might be to announce that a referendum on a republic will soon be held, and that the date will thereafter become Australia Day. At any rate, as we move to change our national governance, our symbols should change too.

Whatever the date becomes should of course be the subject of discussions with indigenous Australians.

There are still plenty of things to celebrate about this country – but the day that white people began taking it away from indigenous people is not one of them.

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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