Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.
Whenever the idea of changing Australia Day gets floated or, more and more, whenever a Council announces that they are actually doing it, there are two standard negative responses.
The first is the type that Malcolm Turnbull gave in parliament. It goes: “We don’t need to change it because Australia is already super awesome and multicultural and respects Indigenous people etcetera etcetera etcetera”. This is essentially the same line of reasoning Howard gave for not acknowledging the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and creating Harmony Day instead. Reduced further, it goes: We don’t need to worry about any of that, because we are awesome.
But Turnbull also added some weird comments about how changing the date would somehow be turning our backs on Australian values. That’s a particularly curious remark. It seeks to come off as open and inclusive, celebrating diversity of people as well as of a diversity of opinions, while simultaneously policing the boundaries of acceptable Australian-ness. This type of response basically allows the resurgence of white nationalism or uber-nationalism to continue unchecked.
It paints a whole range of voices who oppose Australia Day, but most notably Indigenous people (even though we are probably only a very small % of Australians wanting to change the date), as representing a threat to “Australian” values. It also ignores how much white nationalists LOVE Australia Day and hate all those who oppose it. Lots of Australians who aren’t white nationalists love it too, I’m sure, but white nationalists REALLY love it. Almost as much as they hate the Jewish and anyone who isn’t “Fair”. They definitely see it as “their” day, and there simply isn’t much going on nationally that really refutes that belief.
Even though Turnbull said how awesome Indigenous people are, and how old our culture is, he also said that changing the date would be to turn our backs on Australian values. Like Trump’s recent comments regarding Charlottesville, this is coded language to white nationalists and unber-nationalists, for “Aboriginal people hate Australian values”. It’s pretty hard not to make that connection. I’ve done the math.
Changing the date is turning our backs on Australia + Aboriginal people want to change the date = Aboriginal people hate Australian values.
The other main argument made whenever people mention why many Indigenous people want to change the date is that it won’t fix anything. It won’t extend our life expectancy. It won’t reduce child removal or incarceration rates, or fix issues of overcrowded housing, or anything else for that matter. And they are right. Changing the date won’t do any of those things.
What it should do though is serve as an acknowledgement that we can and should address those issues.
Changing the date of Australia Day is a bit like joining a gym. Doing it won’t make you lose weight, gain muscles, or get fitter in any way whatsoever. It is simply an indication that you actually want to achieve those things. It provides an opportunity for you to follow through on that intention. You still have to actually go to the gym at some point though, and probably eat healthier – like, you have to disrupt your own personal status quo, which is all those damaging habits that you always knew were bad for you but shied away from addressing for so long.
And when it comes to racial discrimination and embracing Indigenous cultures and multiculturalism more broadly, Australia is in pretty bad shape.
Australia still has to recognise that we have a long, long way to go actually addressing the issue of eliminating racial discrimination in this country. We can’t use changing the date of Australia to pretend we have fixed racism and then throw a party to celebrate how harmonious we are. Besides, we already have Harmony Day for that, so there’s not much use for another one.
Australia seems to think that having a lot of people from other cultures here automatically makes us multicultural. It doesn’t. Assimilation is antithetical to multiculturalism and yet we still talk about assimilation as a prerequisite for being Australian. For white nationalists, assimilation is the quintessential Australian value. We only really talk about Australian values when we are talking about who is ‘unAustralian’ or when coming up with new ways to keep non-“Fair” people out of the country.
Multiculturalism is meant to mean that we embrace, incorporate and celebrate not just cultural diversity, but the strengths and opportunities it brings. And that means a lot more than bringing in ‘ethnic’ foods to school or work on designated days, and it definitely doesn’t mean getting kids to ‘dress up’ as other cultures either – seriously, stop doing that. And yes, legally speaking, people still do have a right to practice their cultures and their religions and to celebrate their own events holidays and festivals, but socially and politically they still cop hell for doing so. Just look at what happens whenever someone wants to build a mosque in a rural area. If we were truly a multicultural country then logically we would embrace these expressions of culture. We’d embrace multilingualism as well, which includes teaching Aboriginal languages in schools.
We would have people from non-European cultures better represented in media, politics, and in the other top echelons of our society, and those who do manage to make it into those roles would cop a lot less overt racism when they get there. And others in similar positions would speak out more strongly about the racism and discrimination they encounter. We would see diversity in the workplace as the strength that it objectively and empirically is, and not as a sign of reverse racism or “political correctness gone mad” (ie “assault on Australian values”).
But just changing the date of Australia Day will do nothing to address any of this. It won’t do anything to change just how problematic the modern incarnation of Australia Day has become either, but I digress.
You cannot say that Australia day embraces all Australians while simultaneously saying that people who think the date should change are unpatriotic by “turning their backs on Australian values”. That rhetoric sends a very clear message that diversity of opinion is not an important Australian value. It further reinforces the increasingly common observation that the ideal of free speech is only invoked to defend racialised hate speech, and only in one direction.
If something as innocuous as wanting to change the date of Australia labels you as un-Australian, then what about opposing far more crucial elements of contemporary poltical policy and practice? What about opposing offshore detention? The mistreatment of Indigenous people? The “traditional definition of marriage”? Or being pro-choice?
Wanting to change the date of Australia Day, and the way the day itself operates to actively shape our national identity, is not unAustralian. It is expressing a desire to want Australia, and the good people in it, to aspire to that most sacred of ideals that politicians are so quick to evoke but petrified to act on – equality.
Changing the date is one simple way to send the message that we recognise these problems and that we plan to do something about them. But remember, if we do change the date, then we still have to follow through with the more substantial changes. If you do support changing the date but you don’t support doing the work to make the day, then just don’t bother.
We already have too many empty gestures and broken promises when it comes to actually putting in the effort it takes to become a multicultural country that respects our Indigenous peoples and all peoples from all the cultures that make up our diverse population.
Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.