When I was a student at university doing my undergraduate degree, I worked in retail to support myself. While the job itself was perfect for a uni student trying to work shifts around classes and coursework, every single year when November rolled around, I would start to dread going into work. With the Christmas panic shoppers and the endless carols about snow being played over the sound system when it was 35 degrees outside, every shift brought a new kind of hell. Even now, the scars of working in retail during a Christmas lead-up run so deep that I am known to avoid all shopping centres, supermarkets and chain stores for the duration.
Back then though, it was safe for me to venture out in public and finally grab some groceries come January. Yet as the years rolled on, January started to become a no-go zone for these places as well. You see, back when I left retail in 2002, Australia Day was barely a blip on the national calendar. Certainly, the only thing I associated it with were protests in the Aboriginal community. Just last year, I was incredibly pleased to see Invasion Day protesters in Melbourne interrupting the government-sanctioned Australia Day parade. Yet compared to 14 years ago, you can’t now walk into a supermarket without being confronted by a range of products emblazoned with the Australian flag. You cannot turn on the TV without some bloke barking at you to buy lamb. You cannot go to beach without seeing a group of flag caped-crusaders drinking beer.
Protesters from the far right anti-Islam group Reclaim Australia rally in Brisbane, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015.
This reinforcement of Australia Day as a day of jingoistic pride was, in my view, a product of the Howard years. In his time as Prime Minister, John Howard would frequently reiterate need to show pride in this country while labelling the attempts by Indigenous activists and historians to bring the true nature of colonisation to the public’s attention as being “black armband” views – just focussed on negatives.
It is additionally a hangover from an event nobody in this country should be proud of: the Cronulla Riots.
White Australians donned flags as well as slogans like “we grew here, you flew here” in a show of hostility against Middle Eastern migrant communities. That the reinforcement of “pride” has become a national norm ten years after these riots is incredibly disturbing. That groups such as Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots’ Front are now deemed so acceptable by our country that they are framed as “ordinary mums and dads” is, frankly, terrifying.
As an Arrernte woman though, I’ve digressed. To return to an earlier point, Australia Day has always been Invasion Day to me. It was the day where, as a kid growing up in Canberra, I was most likely to see people calling for land rights.
Indeed, back then the entire concept of “Australia Day” seemed to be on the nose.
The Aboriginal rights movement and talks of a treaty continued to gain momentum and we were mere years away from the Mabo ruling. That Terra Nullius, or ‘land belonging to no one’ was it was declared back in 1770 by the Captain Cook, was found to be a legal fiction in the High Court in 1993 but we still don’t have a treaty should be a national shame. Yet this remains unfinished business and every year, on the 26th of January, Indigenous people are expected to buy into the celebration of this fallacy without complaint.
As a person who takes a strong stance in favour of the negotiation of a treaty, I therefore tend to not be too supportive of the calls of many Aboriginal people and our allies to change the date of Australia Day so it doesn’t commemorate the invasion. In my reckoning, until there is a treaty there will be no other date to celebrate the birth of this nation on. And to be honest, I’ve never really understood why non-Indigenous Australia wouldn’t want the opportunity to start afresh. The 26th of January also commemorates the day some of the poorest and most desperate citizens of Great Britain were dumped on the shore of a land halfway across the world to undertake years of cruel labour as punishment for stealing loaves of bread. The opportunity to commemorate the day we come to the table, as equals, and negotiate the way this country moves forward, would indeed make me proud of this country and our ability to work toward a better future. Until then, I much prefer the idea of Invasion Day remaining a day of Indigenous protest and the assertion of sovereignty.
The answer is also not for white Australia to include more Aboriginal people in Australia Day events. It’s not to get more Aboriginal people to sing the National Anthem in public. It’s not to include a welcome to country ceremony before ignoring what this ceremony means. It’s not to misappropriate our iconography as a way of selling your meat. Doing all this merely erases our history and assimilates our identity.
The answer is for people to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and find out why so many of us do not consider this a day of celebration.
It’s to come to our events on our terms – lend yourself and your banner-making skills to an Invasion Day protest; see our bands; talk to our elders. Mostly though, it’s to challenge yourself to stop reiterating the mistruths this country was built upon and commit to a better and more equitable future.
I have always been optimistic that in a country which prides itself on the notion of a “fair go for all”, all that I mention is not an impossible dream. I think we owe it to the future generations. But until some hard conversations are held and people start listening, it will unfortunately remain something I am unlikely to witness in my lifetime. And that truly is a reason to mourn.
Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne. She is the current National Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.