A new song to sing together!

Stan Grant has become one of our nation’s leading and most respected voices. The award-winning journalist and proud Wiradjuri man speaking about Australia Day says that “we are still to find a song we can all sing”.

What a powerful metaphor to reflect on this long weekend.

Surely with mature debate, compassion and courage we could compose and voice such a song if we rescheduled Australia Day, as part of a holistic and renewed national commitment to reconciliation and addressing indigenous disadvantage. That’s something I want to stand for this long weekend. It’s far more important than a day off work, patriotic jingoism, limited-edition sausage sandwich flavoured crisps and firework displays.

I’m a very proud and passionate Australian. I’m so thankful to God I get to live in this beautiful country. But like so many others I yearn for a national celebration day that all Australians, most importantly our First Peoples can fully participate in. A day that no one need be ashamed of; that no one need to be pained by.

There is so much to celebrate about Australia, but we need to face the facts, January 26 – “Australia Day” – is not an inclusive day. It never has been and the more we mature as a nation, the more we need to address this inequity.

Rodney Dillon, a Palawa man, says: “26 January is a hard day for all of our mob. We always feel sad on Australia Day for what it represents.” Tammy Solonec, an indigenous rights advocate and a proud Nigena woman from Derby in Western Australia, says: “26 January is a painful and alienating day. It marks the start of the colonisation and the suffering of our people— it is no celebration for us.”

Given this reality, why stick with a tradition and date that intentionally alienates and pains so many indigenous people, our First Peoples? Why keep our head in the sand at a national political level and maintain an attitude that suggests it’s just too hard to deal with? Why not dare to dream of what could be with a new national day, one which is truly inclusive?

Advocating to change the date of our national day is closely aligned for me with living out gospel values. The Jesus I follow is one who stood with the least, those pushed to the margins by injustice, those who often felt voiceless. Followers of Jesus have a gospel mandate to foster reconciliation, champion justice and rattle the cage!

As a national conversation about Australia Day continues it’s important to reflect on the ever-present reality this day represents to our nation’s First Peoples. 

Indigenous people have called Australia home for more than 60,000 to 80,000 years, being custodians of the world’s oldest continuing living culture on earth. When the First Fleet arrived there were more than 500 Indigenous groups and about 750,000 First Peoples. The colonisation of Australia was done through force, displacing indigenous communities from their ancestral homelands. There was a total disrespect of indigenous rights and culture.

By the 1900s the indigenous population was estimated to have reduced by 90%.

And still today we see the impact of white settlement, with entrenched racism in many communities and alarming levels of disadvantage that indigenous Australians continue to experience across many social, economic and health domains.

So it’s understandable that 26 January is not a day of celebration for our Aboriginal community. And how can we celebrate our nation on a date that so many mourn? Wouldn’t we want a date that represents genuine inclusion? A date we can all sing a new song?

In 1888 when Henry Parkes, the Premier of NSW at the time, was asked was anything planned for Aboriginal people with Australia Day celebrations in Sydney, he quipped “And remind them that we have robbed them?” 

As we move into another Australia Day long weekend, I feel we can do so much better. I am thankful that we are seeing a growing, mature debate on this issue and as I look through a reconciliation lens it seems to me a change of date for our national day would be such a significant step forward in uniting our nation. Yet I am disheartened by our Federal Government’s lack of courage and resolve to pursue meaningful reconciliation initiatives.

Changing the date of Australia Day in some ways could be seen as merely symbolic. It doesn’t resolve many deeper and complex issues related to reconciliation, injustice and disadvantage, but it would clearly demonstrate our diverse nation’s solidarity with our First Peoples and a desire to accelerate our commitment to once and for all genuinely listening to and enshrining an appropriate national indigenous decision-making voice. 

Supporting a change to the date of Australia Day does not reflect a lack of patriotism. Don’t buy that furphy this weekend. It’s not “un-Australian”. In fact, it’s just the opposite. For me it’s about discerning together a day that can truly unite all Australians.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been protesting 26 January for a long time and in recent years the tide appears to be shifting. More people, local governments and organisations and businesses are joining the #ChangeTheDate movement. You can read more about how you or your workplace can get involved in this initiative at http://www.changeitourselves.com.au. You will also find some other very helpful resources at sites such as https://australianstogether.org.au https://www.commongrace.org.au https://ajustcause.com.au/

The reality is the dispossession of our First Nations people began on 26 January 1788.

It was not a day or triumph. Yes, it was the beginning of a colony from which modern Australia was formed, but is also tragically it began centuries of racism, loss, injustice, pain and inequity for indigenous communities. We can own this side of our national story and still cherish and champion all that is so, so good about Australia.

I am not indigenous. I don’t walk in the shoes of an indigenous Australian. But I can feel their pain. I can hear their voice. I have sat with older and younger indigenous Australians and heard their stories. I have met many who inspire and who don’t wallow in self pity and yet they live with pain and racism every day of their lives. I can appreciate why Australia Day is a day of mourning for them. 

And then, knowing this I have a choice. You do too!

I can slap on my temporary Australia Day tattoo, throw on a BBQ, down a good Aussie pale ale, with Australian Crawl and Chisel on the sound system, cheer on everything that is great about Australia and settle back at night and watch The Castle, while totally neglecting the authentic and painful cries of First Australians and an indigenous past, present and future that needs bi-partisan attention. Disadvantage we can all play a part in addressing.

Or I can open my eyes to real Australia in 2020.  Yes, a beautiful and blessed nation, but also a broken one. A country that I am so privileged to live in, yet a place where division, racism and injustice still prevail on city streets, country towns and in corridors of power. 

If our national weekend, our national holiday, is truly to be about all Australians it cannot intentionally continue to alienate our First Peoples. And so, this weekend I want to stand with a growing number of concerned Australians calling for #ChangeTheDate and more – a renewed commitment to reconciliation in the great southland of the Holy Spirit. Our PM can seek to enforce local councils to sing to his song sheet and even seek to implement citizenship dress codes, while ignoring far bigger reconciliation issues.

I see the possibility that 26 January could remain a key date in our national calendar, but rather than be a celebratory day, it could become a national reconciliation day – a day for reflection, truth-telling and forward movement together.

Our Prime Minister prefers a special day to celebrate indigenous Australians, but for me, that just continues to foster difference and divide. I think it’s time for courageous, unifying leadership. An Australia Day date change won’t happen by 2021, but it could by 2025 or 2030 if we put First Australians ahead of traditionalism, jingoism and short-term political thinking.

Kim Huynh, a politics lecturer at Australian National University and an ABC Radio Canberra presenter, writes: “Choosing and investing in a new national day will invariably generate new debates and discontent. But we can, and should, now make that choice and muster the goodwill required to make it work for the nation.”

Yes, change like this will always be contentious and yet as Stan Grant has suggested something so helpful and healing could come through mature and honest reflection and debate.

I must admit I cringe when I hear white Australians say things like “well I wasn’t around back then when all those bad things happened” …I’m just as Australian as they are.”… “Why do they get special privileges?” For me, such statements are cop-outs.  They allow us to excuse ourselves, to close our eyes to systemic injustice, national shame and generational pain. They allow us to slumber in comfortable white Australia.

Three years ago, indigenous leaders issued the “Uluru Statement from the Heart”. They called for the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to be grounded in truth-telling and justice.  Their statement finished with an invitation to Australians to “walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”

A change in date for our national day will help build a better future – symbolically and substantively.

Author and freelance writer, Karen Wyld lives on the coast, south of Adelaide, on Kaurna country. She is a Martu descendant, and her grandmother’s country is in the Pilbara.

She says of herself: “I have red dirt in my veins, ocean at my feet, wind in my hair, stars in my eyes and stories on my tongue.”

I think Wyld is right when she writes: “The date will change. And, although it will take longer, the nation will change. There are enough still standing to lead this change – so all Australians can finally access the freedoms, equality and justice that Australia so proudly espouses.”

This weekend I will give thanks to God for Australia. 

I will seek God’s forgiveness for my sins of commission and omission that have fostered injustice and division. I will look forward to worshipping with the wonderful multi-cultural church community I call home. I will enjoy time with my family and friends. I will take my kids for a walk on the Wurundjeri Trail, next door to our home and remind ourselves that we are so privileged to live in this beautiful country – on Wurundjeri land – and yet how painful this weekend is for many First Australians. I will ask the Holy Spirit to stir afresh my heart that it may break more for the things that break the heart of God.

And I will intentionally choose to see an Australia – in my lifetime – where with God’s help and the good will of good people and courageous and compassionate national leaders we will have found Stan Grant’s song that we can all sing!

#ChangeTheDate is so much more than a calendar re-scheduling. It’s signifies a renewal of our nation’s heart and soul – a desire for authentic and lasting reconciliation. We all have a part to play!

One thought on “A new song to sing together!

  1. His indigenous roots didn’t keep Stan Grant back from a successful career as a journalist. Of course it’s easier to be an activist on lesser issues than to focus what’s going on in remote communities. Suicide, rape and violence against women among Australia’s Indigenous population is significantly higher than the general Australian population. I’d have thought those to be far more important issues to focus on, than fiddling with things like changing when Australia Day is held or editing the national anthem.

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