We may prefer to skip the following list on our national day. It’s hard to read. It would be a lot easier to slap on a temporary Australian flag tattoo, throw a snag on the BBQ and shuffle the Best of Oz playlist.
Personally, for a middle-aged white Australian, I find the following list sobering and humbling to read. Why? Because it’s true.
And truth-telling isn’t easy. The truth often hurts. But truth is reconciliation’s good friend.
Truth-telling highlights why today – 26 January – a day that marks invasion and dispossession, is the most unhelpful day on the calendar for an Australian national celebration day. It’s plain and simple. And we can choose to ignore this reality, make excuses, re-write history and play politics. Or we can join the chorus of a growing movement of ordinary Australians who yearn for genuine reconciliation and understand the important link of #changethedate.
The following list of past and present injustices, experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, was read at last night’s nationally broadcast #ChangeTheHeart reconciliation service. It’s sobering stuff. It brings me to my knees in lament for our broken nation.
Yes, I love Australia. I love this beautiful country and its diverse cultures and people. There is so much to celebrate. But today, of all days, I lament the past and present systemic racism and disadvantage experienced by First Australians. I lament the truth of this list of hurts and dare I admit it, my part in them – by commission or omission.
The lack of progress on “Closing the Gap”
Life expectancy gaps
High suicide rates
Lack of returns of ancestral remains
Age of criminal responsibility
The breaking of the UN Convention of Rights of Indigenous People
Forced removal from homeland
Loss of languages
Lack of a Truth Telling Commission
Excessive rates of prison incarceration and juvenile detention
Aboriginal deaths in custody
Lack of protection of sacred sites
Breaking of the rights of the UN Convention for Aboriginal Children
Lack of treaties
Destruction of sacred sites
Lack of recognition of the Frontier Wars
And the list could go on … and on!
Yes, it’s a sobering list. But it’s one we need to read, embrace and act on if we genuinely want to see lasting and meaningful reconciliation in our country.
As I read the list, I acknowledge the past and present injustice experienced by Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people; I am challenged to honestly reflect on my part in these hurts; I am shaken in my apathy and comfort; I am led to prayer. I am called to action!
As Aunty Jean Phillips, one of Australia’s most respected Aboriginal Christian leaders said last night, reconciliation always starts with the individual – it always begins with a change of heart.
And while changing the date of our national day is not “the answer”, it powerfully reflects our nation’s change of heart. It’s a very important and symbolic step in truth-telling and recognition. It’s a vital healing step. It says we’re serious as a nation in progressing reconciliation.
All commemorative dates carry symbolism and story. And January 26 intentionally excludes. It marks pain and hurt. It shouts injustice. It has never been a day of inclusion. It has for more than two centuries represented dispossession. It has been a “Day of Mourning” long, long before it became our gazetted national day and a public holiday.
And I am left asking myself “why”? Why do we want to hold on so tightly to a date, which most Australians in a recent survey could not even identify its historical roots, but which we know causes so much pain to so many?
And then I ask myself “what if”?
What if our national day was a day that united us, rather than divided? A day where we all could come together to celebrate this huge, beautiful, unique land, our diverse people and cultures and genuine steps forward in reconciliation.
Rodney Dillon, a proud Palawa man from Tasmania and Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Rights Advisor asks: “What if our national day was moved to any of the other 364 days in the year that didn’t mark the start of dispossession and pain? A date that meant something to everyone, whether your ancestors came here 65,000 years ago, 230 years ago, or you migrated here last week. There are so many good options we could consider.”
Surely today, as a mature nation, we can courageously ask the “what if” question.
As Grace Tame, the 2021 Australian of the Year, said last night, what do we have to lose by being willing to make this most important, symbolic move and shift our national day from one that stands as Invasion Day to most First Australians.
As Tame said: “It costs us nothing as a nation to actually change that date. And it would mean a lot to [First Australians] and to our national community.”
On this public holiday, there will be many Furphys’ drunk across the nation, but please don’t buy “the furphy” that those of us who advocate for our national day to be celebrated on another day, don’t love this country.
“Trying to change the date is un-Australian,” I was told by someone this week.
Thankfully as a nation we do seem to be moving beyond this nonsensical response and we seem more open to a mature conversation about our national day.
Hopefully our Prime Minister, who has a unique opportunity to advance reconciliation, can move his Government beyond playing it safe and embrace a more courageous position. This could be one of Mr Morrison’s lasting legacies, one of his finest achievements in office, but regrettably at this point big-ticket reconciliation issues appear to be in Federal Government’s “too-hard basket”.
Yes there are some very good, practical initiatives being pursued and It’s welcoming to change one word in our national anthem, but we desperately need strong, courageous, compassionate and bipartisan leadership on the key issues that matter when it comes to reconciliation.
Yes it’s complex. It’s hard. But with resolve, good will and courage we could see real change in the decade ahead, including giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a decisive voice on matters that affect them.
As the 2021 State of Reconciliation Report says “it’s time for brave, rather than safe actions” if our nation is to move reconciliation from awareness raising to lasting change.
“Actions must involve truth telling and actively addressing issues of inequality, systemic racism and instances where the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are ignored, denied and reduced …. and Indigenous people must be given a decisive voice on matters that affect them,” the report comments.
The Report highlights growing support across Australia for lasting change. But to see this change we need courageous leadership from our Federal Government and so maybe today, you can join me, in writing to our Prime Minister encouraging reconciliation to be a front and centre issue for his government.
And whatever you get up to today, spare a thought for First Australians like Rodney Dillon, who says:
“This year, like every year, I wish I could tuck into some prawns, watch those fireworks, and join in the celebrations on that day. But for me, my family, my friends, and pretty much everyone I know, 26 January is a date of grief and mourning, not a day of celebration.”
Dillon practically suggests a number of other potential national days including his favourite, 1 September; “the first day of Spring and the time when the days start getting longer and warmer. We currently know it as Wattle Day, because it’s when our green and gold national flower is out and blooming all over the country — a unique Australian beauty that we can all celebrate”.
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.
Karen Wyld 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 Karen Wyld is right – it will happen. Hopefully sooner than later.
And in the meantime, there’s that list that we can’t escape from. There’s systemic injustice and racism scarring Indigenous people, communities and our nation and we all have a part to play.
Maybe today, this week, this month we can intentionally decide to listen more to First Nation voices. Maybe we can sit and listen to the ideas and opinions of First Nation people in our local communities. Maybe we can live more freely with the tension of love and lament. Maybe we can ponder truth-telling. Maybe we can make a stand again at racism at work. Maybe we can write to our local MP and Prime Minister. Maybe we can actively join the cause for change. A good starting point could be http://www.common grace.org.au.
We can all be part of the change! We can all join Stan Grant in pursuing a song we can all sing! We can all courageously ask: “What if?”