Invasion Day and the Inherent Discrimination of Australian Nationalism

25 Jan 2022

Nationalism is defined as an ideology or movement of intense devotion and loyalty to one nation-state by prioritising that nation’s interests over others. Nationalism is not inherently good or bad. It depends entirely on how it is used and what message is portrayed.

Growing up as a Dunghutti boy in Kempsey – a rural country town in New South Wales – I saw January 26th (Invasion Day) celebrated in two very different ways. I watched on as some families would have lunch or a day at the beach drinking beers, which always featured slurred speeches about ‘mateship’– not dissimilar to those spouted by politicians. Or inversely, I saw people attending First Nations mourning ceremonies and protesting the day. My family has both Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds, so my Australia Day consisted of a small lunch with my close relatives as everyone had the day off. Still, it wasn’t a time of celebration. As a Dunghutti boy, shaped by my familial traditions, I identified strongly with the position that this day is Invasion Day and a time of mourning, not celebration. This stance excludes me from identifying with other Australians who throw large family gatherings and parties on this day. Even so, the opposed positions and the reoccurring debates, both on the news and from people I grew up around, of how the day should be spent showed me that celebrating this day wasn’t right. It wasn’t until my late teens that I began to form my own understanding of the history of the controversial day and ideas of Australian nationalism that comes with it – with no thanks to my one high school Aboriginal studies course, taught by an old white guy.

Nationalism is defined as an ideology or movement of intense devotion and loyalty to one nation-state by prioritising that nation’s interests over others. Nationalism is not inherently good or bad. It depends entirely on how it is used and what message is portrayed. Godwin’s law inbound… In high school, I learnt about 1930s Nazi-era Germany, which propagated ethnic nationalism and global control. A clear example of the dangers of nationalism. This contrasts with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank currently fighting against human rights violations and injustices. Which is a nationalist movement of self-determination, empowerment, and sovereignty of an oppressed group. Nationalism can be a tool for discrimination or empowerment.

The NSW Government describes January 26 as the national day to “celebrate the Australian spirit”, while claiming to respect and reconcile with First Nations people. However, as many activists before me have pointed out, this day seems to forget all the atrocities experienced by non-white Australia under this guise of nationalism. This Australian spirit (or nationalism) has a habit of excluding any dark sides of the past. On the most nationalistic day, there is little consideration given to the history of colonisation, which led to war, slavery, massacres, and mass starvation. Although this day may appear to be a long-running Australian tradition, it was only officially recognised as a national holiday in 1994. Since then, there has been an increased encouragement of unification through nationalism peddled by the government. This peddling was initially popularised in The History Wars by the then prime minister, John Howard, who promoted conservative views of Australian history. Particularly jarring, he spread the “black armband” pendulum perspective of history, which was used to delegitimise First Nations experiences and undermine the truth-telling of colonial history. He pushed the notion that Indigenous genocide didn’t happen and didn’t acknowledge the existence of the Stolen Generations. This comforted and subsided white guilt and was partially done to create a hasty national unity instead of building a legitimate one – such as through  reparations for  Indigenous peoples. This newfound nationalism ignored First Nations people and has had lasting impacts on today’s understanding of history, which is evident when our current prime minister says things like “there was no slavery in Australia.

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Not only that, but it also ignores the problems experienced in modern-day Australia. “But colonisation happened hundreds of years ago. Things are different now”, and after all, this is the “lucky country”, apparently. However, this just isn’t true and ignores the inequality entrenched in modern-day Australia that First Nations people suffer from. Currently, the incarceration and children in out-of-home care rates are disproportionately higher for Indigenous people. This over-representation is in part due to a range of systemic issues that unfairly affect the First Nations population. Issues regarding health, education, and economic opportunity which are not being solved because First Nations people are not being listened to. So when I get told that things are different now and that we live in the “lucky country”, I hear privilege and willful ignorance. How can a group afflicted by inequality be expected to celebrate a country that works against them? On a day where history is invalidated, and reality is ignored.

Racism and religious discrimination are beliefs and behaviours used to exclude specific demographics. It is a common theme ingrained in extreme nationalism. By being unaccepting and opposed to other cultures, the central nation-state maintains their conceptualised ethnic makeup, resulting in some groups being unwelcome and seen as the “other”. In the Australian context, First Nations and people from culturally diverse backgrounds, such as Migrants and refugees, experience the highest rates of racism. I have had my own personal experiences with racism regarding my Indigenous identity. White people have called me “half-caste” or “not really black”. Nevertheless, this doesn’t compare to the instances of racially motivated attacks which have been on the rise for some groups in Australia. It is then to be expected that people targeted for their race or religion feel unwelcome and unsafe in this country, especially on days celebrating Australian nationalism. 

In stark contrast, many Australian nationalist parties, groups, and movements feel comfortable enough to openly have causes rooted in discrimination. Around Invasion Day, the disregard for First Nations perspectives is blatant, like the time Pauline Hanson, the One Nation Party leader, stated that those who are opposed to the national day should “get over it… get rid of the chip off (their) shoulder.” There have also been numerous political parties dedicated to stopping migration and who oppose Islam in Australia, which is just clear cut Islamophobia. Australian nationalism and the racist tendencies it invokes was on full display in the Grampians neo-Nazi trip last year. On this trip, over 30 white men affiliated with the Nationalist Socialist Network travelled to The Grampians area to celebrate Invasion Day weekend. They burnt crosses and pretended to be German Nazi’s by chanting Hitler slogans and doing his salute. The group’s leader had also praised the Christchurch mosque shootings in the past. Australia has its very own neo-Nazi group, who feel welcome to parade their extremism around on the national day of Australia. The day meant to celebrate the country’s multiculturalism, and acceptance leads to further discrimination for those who don’t fit the ethnic makeup while normalising extremist views. I do not want to be celebrating national pride on a day that makes neo-Nazis and Pauline Hanson think they can celebrate white nationalism.

This is the reason why changing the date won’t solve the issue. The problems with so-called Australia Day do not stop and start on January 26th. It begins with Australian nationalism and what it represents as an oppressive and ignorant ideology. A form of nationalism that purports to be all-inclusive, when in actuality First Nations peoples voices are ignored, non-white Australians are excluded, and discriminatory groups are made to feel comfortable. I guess that’s the “Australian Spirit”. 

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