Australia Day: A Celebration of Genocide?

February 29, 2016

Photograph: Flickr 

 

Australia Day is a national public holiday celebrated across Australia on the 26th January every year. It is a day to celebrate the first fleet of British ships that docked at New South Wales in 1788. Captain Arthur Phillip came with 11 convict ships and made Australia a British colony by declaring the country terra nullius – a land belonging to no one. This declaration was as troubling as it was audacious, as the land already had caretakers: the indigenous Aboriginal population.

For most Australians it is a day off work to have pool parties, get drunk, listen to Triple J Hottest 100 songs of the year, and celebrate being Australian. There are community events, award ceremonies, and pride of being considered one of the happiest places in the world to live. It is also a joyful day for the newly sworn in citizens appreciating Australia as a multicultural and accepting country. 

But alongside the celebrations every year there are protests; mourning for the destruction of one of the world’s longest living civilisations – the indigenous Aboriginals. This year was no different, as protest marches took place from Perth to Sydney. The day is also known as ‘survivor’ or ‘invasion’ day for the thousands of Aboriginals and supporters who took to the street. In contrast to the celebrations, many view the day as extremely offensive and refuse to celebrate the mass murders committed by their ancestors. 

Hence, Australia Day is often seen as nothing but a celebration of genocide. Journalist John Pilger called the 26th  of January “one of the saddest days in human history”. And indeed, the UN’s legal definition of genocide sufficiently describes what has happened to the Aboriginal population in the last few hundred years:

"Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

- Killing members of the group

- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group

- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group"

T he colonists did most of these things to the Aboriginal population. In 1788 there were around 700, 000 Aboriginals, by 1900 this dropped to 93, 000.  Even until 1970 there were forced transferrals of indigenous children into white families. In the current day, life expectancy is shorter for Aboriginals, there is a higher incarceration rate, high numbers in poverty, and high unemployment.

Thus, the fact that every year the government encourages everyone to celebrate the national holiday commemorating the start of all of this seems offensive at the very least. Australia seems to be at an awkward dilemma of how to celebrate the nation’s past. Much of the population feel guilty celebrating the evil that their ancestors did but also want a national holiday to be proud of the country that they live in today.

Google openly brought the issue to light this past Australia Day by placing the artwork by a teenage girl displaying an Aboriginal woman crying as her children were taken away. Unsurprisingly this was very controversial with some Aboriginals finding it disrespectful and others criticising it for taking a political stance when they should be neutral. However, whatever the interpretation of the image may be, Google’s acknowledgement of this tension seems to be a positive step towards discussing the issue, and hence towards reconciliation and a solution. 

What is remarkable is how peaceful the protests are against Australia Day; they are not vicious attacks against anyone. Instead, it is a matter of the whole nation coming together and recognising the atrocities committed by the British Empire against the Aboriginal population. And thus working together to create a remembrance day which unifies the whole nation together.

There seems to be hope. Reconciliation events and talks have been happening for decades. After the 1997 report ‘Bringing Them Home’ and increased political activity throughout the 1980s, a National Sorry Day was created in 1998. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 also made an official apology. However, it is easy to see why this does not seem to be enough in 2016, in one of the most liberal and  wealthy countries in the world. Changing the date of Australia Day and redefining what it celebrates would be much more significant. A true acceptance and appreciation of the indigenous population entwined with all the distinct cultures living in Australia seems to be in reach.

A new national holiday, not on the anniversary of colonisation, but on a day that all Australians of every ethnicity can celebrate together should be considered. They are a successful nation, and they should be proud of it. This does not have to be a celebration of the genocide, but a celebration of a beautiful country with a bright future for all in it.

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