I am first generation. When I say that now, despite my years of privilege, I still get goosebumps. I have inherited gratitude. People in Australia were and are sometimes vile about Jews but they don’t betray them to the authorities. They don’t shoot them in the back of the head. This is not to forgive anti-semitism in any respect, because it is at the heart of genocide; but genocide only exists in Australia for one group of people; and it isn’t Jews.
Of course, like most of us, I abandoned some aspects of the values of my parents and grew out of hiding my displeasure at the government, even though I know that both my parents would be appalled at my critique of governments past and present. The gratitude should outweigh the analysis. I wonder if my parents would have come around to my way of thinking if they knew how the Australian government treats refugees now.
Australia Day was huge in my family. My parents worked 11 days a week but Australia Day was a serious celebration. We’d go to Nielsen Park in Sydney’s Vaucluse and swim. Or what passed for swimming in my family, breaststroke without putting your face in the water (it is with some pride that my offspring can all swim freestyle and breathe on both sides. Pride and amazement. How do people actually put their faces in water and live?)
So in 1988, when I was pregnant with my second child, I’d planned January 26 events very carefully. Watch boats. Have picnics. Watch Aboriginal dancing. See fireworks. Be extremely grateful. I was. Two years later, we organised a holiday up on the far north coast with another family. The topic of Australia Day came up and they were hugely critical. I burst into tears.
Of course, they were right. And wrong. And I was right and so wrong.
Nearly 30 years ago, when I had that fight with my friends Robin and Neil, Australia Day was still acceptable and it’s become less acceptable now. For me, then, it was a time to celebrate being in country which didn’t kill me or reject me or exclude me in a systematic way. But it marks the day when the colonisers of Australia began to kill, reject and exclude the Aboriginal people. Or, as Stan Grant put it when describing how the brilliant Swan Adam Goodes was treated last year: “I can tell you what we heard when we heard those boos, we heard a sound that was very familiar to us . . . we heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream and it said to us again, you’re not welcome.”
I doubt there could ever be a day when Aboriginal people could or would celebrate the colonisation of this land or the formation of this nation nor should we ever question the motives of anyone who doesn’t want to take part in a joyless jamboree. Australia Day is connected to the destruction of another culture, this country’s first people, although we must acknowledge that every day, the life expectancy, the education, the health, gap between Aboriginal and whites continues to exist.
As Grant says later in his speech at the IQ2 racism debate last year: “My people die young in this country, we die 10 years younger than average Australians and we are far from free.”
If we move Australia Day, it allows a bunch of martyr rightists to claim Aboriginal activists won. If we don’t move Australia Day, we ignore the destruction of the Aboriginal people.
But we could change Australia Day, make it a time when we can account for ourselves and our progress. January 26 will always be a day of mourning and it could also be a time when we examine the state of the nation and all who live here.
It will also make it possible for those of us who were given shelter here to give thanks for that shelter.
A friend wrote* to me to say he’s had enough of being a continuing unwilling protagonist in the war against Australia’s Indigenous people. Me too. We have become unwilling parties to the war on Aborigines.
Could Australia Day be reshaped, away from drunkenness and celebrations, towards acknowledgement, reconciliation and peace?
I wrote: “I’ve had enough of war. My parents survived theirs through luck, guts, and hope – a bit like all refugees then and now. But I’ve had enough of being a continuing unwilling protagonist in the war against Australia’s indigenous people. Fed up to here and beyond. Australia Day is about two wars – the one my parents escaped that let us be, and the war they entered despite themselves that I’ve inherited. Time to make peace; and what better day than Australia Day to declare we are committed to finding a lasting and effective peace. That means we need to decide we don’t want to win that war through annihilating or crushing Indigenous Australia, and we don’t want the war of attrition to roll endlessly into a god forsaken future of misery. We want to end it ASAP.”