We cannot seek an end to the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by cajoling the broad majority of Australians with soft entreaties of ‘change the date’. As rightly pointed out by many, changing the date of Australia Day – without the achievement of social justice or legal restitution in the form of Land Rights and Treaty – only moves the celebration of unfinished business to another date. Another date on which to celebrate ‘the country we are now’ and ‘how lucky’ we all are will only continue Australia Day’s tradition of denial. Changing the date will encourage the use of nationalistic concepts such as ‘mateship’, ‘egalitarianism’ and ‘a fair go for all’ in order to inspire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to ‘move on’ and assimilate into that great misconception of the inclusive and multicultural Australian society.
It is these same nationalistic concepts that have begun to proliferate discussion regarding Aboriginal protest and mourning on Australia Day. Such tools of nationalism are soft in nature, smoothing over racial inequities in order to present a ‘great country’, one that is then worthy of celebration – just on a different date. However, the use of ‘Australian cultural values’ to support the protest and mourning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is ironic at best, damaging at worst.
Egalitarianism, equality and the fair go for all are hallmarks of the new conversation about Australia Day, whereby moving the date would somehow right past wrongs and lead to a more equal society. With more equality, Australians could ‘celebrate together as one’ an egalitarian nation where everyone gets a ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’. But many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to face high rates of economic exclusion and incarceration alongside lower life expectancy, health and educational outcomes. In addition, it is not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are outliers to the Australian egalitarian utopia. In early 2017 it was reported that “…there is an ongoing problem with poverty in Australia, with recent research suggesting that the relative poverty rate has been between 10% and 14% of households since 2000…” Australia simply cannot celebrate ‘fair play’ when such play exists for some, but not for all.
Mateship is another Australian cultural value that has crept its way into the ‘change the date’ conversation. With the idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s objection to Australia Day is purely related to offense and hurt at 26 January, an alternative date of May 8 has been proposed. With May 8 pronounced to sound like the drawled ‘maaaate’, moving Australia Day to May 8 is a nationalistic affirmation of ‘mateship’. As described by proponents of May 8, “what better day could there be to rejoice in our country and the good things it stands for, than a day whose name says ‘mate’!” However, with origins in early colonial times, the idea of mateship is one that is rooted in the friendships of white convicts and settlers who needed ‘mateship’ to survive the harsh conditions of colonial Australia. With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people violently dispossessed by these same convicts and settlers, mateship is not a cultural value that should be used to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protest and mourning related to Australia Day.
The idea that we could simply move Australia Day to another date where we could celebrate ‘for all Australians’ is one that completely denies the ongoing oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Central to the idea of ‘all Australians’ is the notion of cultural diversity and inclusivity, and the assimilation of migrants into the Australian narrative. Such a narrative extols the virtues of an Australia that is tolerant of non-white migrants – so long as those non-white migrants are grateful to Australia and celebratory of it. Tolerance, here, is predicated on the denial of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty and the centring of White Australia as the arbiter of who gets tolerated and who does not.
And so, White Australia’s denial of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty cuts straight to the heart of the issue regarding Australia Day. As a date, January 26 has a long history of protest that is both about mourning the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and asserting First Nations sovereignty – offence and hurt at the date has always been a lessor part of the conversation. In 1988, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from around the country gathered in Sydney to protest the Bicentenary with the central demand of Land Rights. Thirty years on, it serves as a strong reminder that protests against Australia Day are not about offence and hurt over the date of 26 January, but rather that the date is used by First Nations activists to mourn ongoing oppression, assert sovereignty and demand Land Rights. Calls to change the date only seek to pull us further away from the real protest and the use of nationalism to support such protest undermines it all.