The Day Australia Got Its Conscience

26 Jan 2019

The 26th of January is indeed a historic day of significance for the Australian community. The events that took place on that day helped shape modern Australia and continue to have a profound impact of the lives of millions.

The 26th of January is indeed a historic day of significance for the Australian community. The events that took place on that day helped shape modern Australia and continue to have a profound impact of the lives of millions.

26th of January 1938 was the day Australia got its conscience. For the first time Australia was given a sense of what was morally right and wrong.

2019 marks the 81st anniversary of the inaugural Day of Mourning.

On the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, the Aboriginal Progressive Association in conjunction with the Victorian based Australian Aborigines League, declared January 26 the Day of Mourning. They organised a protest march and congress in Sydney Hall after they were refused access to Sydney Town Hall.

Their declaration:

“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

These leaders introduced new ideas and concepts to the broader community, ideas which  would take root in a social justice movement that continue unabated to this very day, on we now call Invasion Day. Ideas like equality, dispossession, citizenship and the notion of restorative justice which infiltrated their way into a fettered national dialogue.

IndigenousX has been running the #changethenation campaign in recent days. It follows the proud and stoic tradition of those in that hall 81 years ago today.

They gave voice to a race a class of people that many Australians thought of as a dying race. A race of people only thought of as a useful servant class until their Aboriginality was eventually bred out.

I am not writing this to give you a history lesson on how the day came about, nor the deep well of pragmatism that was drawn from to establish and organise such a profound and resonant statement. That is your journey to go on, there has been plenty written elsewhere.

Suffice to say, we will forever be indebted to Bill Ferguson, Jack Patten, William Cooper, Margaret Tucker, J Connelly, Tom Foster, Pearl Gibbs, Helen Grosvenor, Jack Johnson, Jack Kinchela, Bert Marr, Pastor Doug Nicholls, Henry Noble, Tom Pecham, Frank Roberts and many others. All of whom organised and put their name to ideas and statements that were revolutionary at the time and still are to some extent today.

What I will do is highlight their place in history and why through their actions we continue to survive and thrive despite the ongoing inequity, racism and ignorant attitudes of many.

Through their actions, they instigated the path towards national consciousness.

An awakening of the broader Australian community that would gradually become more attuned to the plight of the first Australians. These men and women, these leaders, would also help draw the battle lines. Their action would redraw the country’s social and political landscape and identify where support would be garnered, blockages identified and pragmatism deployed.

The work, the advocacy and the ongoing efforts of many of us, is merely a continuation of those men and women in that hall in Sydney 81 years ago. Their efforts may have been ignored, even derided by the press of the time, but their dignity remained intact, their legacy untarnished, their place in history assured.

January 26 will never be a day of celebration for me, but it is a day of national significance, not because a bunch of bread thieves were lobbed into the Sydney Harbour, and certainly not because Scott Morrison tells us it is.

It’s a day of significance because it is the day Australia was dragged kicking and screaming into consciousness. To thinking beyond itself and the mother country. It had to start thinking about what had been done in the name of the crown and to whom.

It would eventually have to deal with the lie of Terra Nullius and start to think of Aboriginal people as fellow citizens instead of the conquered.

They said it, better than I ever could.

“You are the New Australians, but we are the Old Australians. We have in our arteries the blood of the Original Australians, who have lived in this land for many thousands of years. You came here only recently, and you took our land away from us by force.  You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation”.

There is still a long way to go, it is up to us to make sure we see the job through, because not only did they #changethenation, they helped create it.

Their spirit and legacy gives us reason to remain confident.

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