Australia Day does not solely represent the First Fleet’s arrival at Sydney Cove in 1788.
It represents the lengths Australia has gone to in order to cover up its colonial crimes. The country promotes a devastating amnesia about the mass slaughter of Aboriginal nations in order to escape accountability — not just for the thousands of lost black lives, but for the stolen land that Australia was built upon.
This is what Australia Day is ultimately about: resisting accountability. And it is not a coincidence — it is deliberate. Australia Day is not about "mateship" or a "fair go". It is not a celebration of the "lucky country". It is a tool used by a perpetrator of violence to undermine calls for justice.
A perpetrator of violence begins by silencing its victims. And this is what has happened over the past 230 years. Australians were not taught about this black history in schools, despite these institutions being built upon stolen lands. There are massacres across the country that have remained unrecorded — where the bones of a sovereign people lay bleached by the waters; where bodies lay buried under soil with no memorial.
When the perpetrator of violence is confronted, when it cannot protect this suffocating silence, it begins a more insidious project. It builds a wall, in some places fortified by blatant denial, propped up by people such as historian Keith Windschuttle, and in other places barricaded by a sophisticated rationalisation.
This was most recently demonstrated by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Twitter, where he attempted to co-opt Aboriginal people into celebrations as “our first Australians”.
“I’m disappointed by those who want to change the date of Australia Day, seeking to take a day that unites Australia and Australians and turn it into one that would divide us,” he said in a video address. “Australia Day is a day to come together and celebrate what unites us, what inspires us, what gives all of us reason to be proud that we are Australian.”
Judith Herman wrote in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence about the onus being placed back onto the victims of violence: “After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on”.
In his address Turnbull undermined the voices of Aboriginal people who do not feel “united” in Australian history, by paternalistically expressing his “disappointment” that we just can’t move on and get on with it. He claims that the day is not divisive, and that it is Aboriginal people, by protesting the date of invasion, who are instead doing the dividing.
Turnbull’s words are a more eloquent version of the arguments that arise every year as we move closer to January 26. Aboriginal people are forced to justify our humanity, and our right to be heard, as many Australians campaign for their right to drink to excess and party on stolen beaches. We are told we are lying or exaggerating and, if that doesn’t work, that we just have to forget it and move on.
But there is a movement to chip away at this wall. Across the country, Australians are building momentum to “change the date”. This groundswell is vital, because another tool of the perpetrator is to isolate bystanders so they feel they are helpless in the pursuit of justice. Herman writes: “Without a supportive social environment, the bystander usually succumbs to the temptation to look the other way.”
This is what has happened since Australia Day celebrations were formalised in 1994. The environment has remained so stifling, and so toxic, that many well-meaning Australians feel it better to close their eyes. There is comfort in remaining apathetic. But we cannot continue to be bystanders. We cannot continue to engage in this deliberate silencing and re-victimisation of First Nations people.
Because we have not truly dealt with the past, the violence wrought upon Aboriginal people remains intact in our institutions: in our criminal justice system, where Aboriginal people die in custody; in our child protection system, where more and more Aboriginal children are being taken away; and in our health system, where Aboriginal people are dying from a failure of adequate health care.
The remnants of colonial violence have also been reborn in our own people. Aboriginal traumatologist Judy Atkinson has written extensively on the intergenerational impact of violence, and how the trauma it causes can lead to our men becoming violent against our women and children.
You cannot separate the celebration of Australia Day from the issues that plague our communities. The past affects the present, and unless there is change, it will affect our future.
This is why Australia Day is not just “a day”. It is not merely “symbolic”.
Many Australians are now beginning to realise this. They understand how damaging the great denial has been. But while we chip away at the wall, we have to consider the tools we are using. Will changing the date tear down this wall?
There were waves of invasions into Aboriginal lands where, prior to white settlement, Aboriginal people lived in harmony with the land, sea and sky for millennia. While January 26 marks the beginning of the invasion into Gadigal lands at Sydney Cove, across the country, Aboriginal nations have their own dates for invasion.
In my own Darumbal country in Central Queensland, the colonisers, tempted by the bounty of Toonooba (renamed the Fitzroy River), did not turn up until 1853. The bloodshed in my country continued for another 60 years, and then the survivors were rounded up onto reserves and into missions. Simply changing the date does not resolve anything — it just means there will be a date for Australians to celebrate in comfort, without delving into their own complicity in this history.
But as the environment changes around the celebration of Australia Day, the role of a bystander can also change. To confront the amnesia of history, you can begin researching your own community. Research the town you grew up in: when did the story of your town begin? Was it with the settlers, with the pastoralists, with the miners? Or did the story begin tens of thousands of years before?
Building a wall that barricades us from the past, also prevents us from seeing, and celebrating, the strong culture and knowledge that were handed down for generations, as far back as our minds can comprehend.
It is tempting to believe that we can move on, and “reconcile” as a nation, without undergoing a process of truth-telling.
But it is never that simple. Australia resists accountability, because to acknowledge it would mean confronting what that accountability would lead to: a treaty process; true land justice where Aboriginal people have the right to live and hunt and practice culture on country; and the possibility of reparations as a pathway towards healing.
A truth-telling process was called for in the recent Uluru Statement From The Heart, which Turnbull rejected outright.
Until we undergo this process, any date will remain a source of pain and grief for Aboriginal people. To deny us the right to mourn our ancestors, and instead actively urge us to celebrate the attempted destruction of our culture, is to continue enabling the perpetrators of violence.