January 26th 1788:
Britain settled Australia for the Empire and considered it “Terra Nullius” – an empty land.
However, history tells us it wasn’t empty at all. For 50,000 years it had been brimming with life, culture, laws, politics, narratives and art. It was, and still is, a land full of wonder.
Celebrated annually as Australia Day, January 26th finds most Australian’s drinking, eating and generally doing as little as possible. Some say it’s a day to celebrate ‘Aussie-ness’ but in recent years, this idea has become a veil for celebrating ‘whiteness’ at the exclusion of anything else.
It’s become a day rife with racially motivated violence and alcohol fuelled abuse of anyone of a different colour or ethnicity. It’s become a day when the dark undercurrents of intolerance and casual racism still lurking in our society rear up, cloaked in cheap plastic national flags.
For me it’s a day of somber reflection on how far we’ve come since those early days of settlement, when two ancient cultures crossed en masse, and how far we still have to go. I wanted to share that reflection this year and try to convey the deeply mixed and troubled feelings many Australian’s hold for a day now also known as “Invasion Day”.
Firstly, my thoughts are with the generations of indigenous people of this land, whose futures were irrevocably altered in 1788. There is no limit to the sorrow I feel for what you’ve lost since the wide blue sky you lived under for tens of thousands of years filled with white tall ship sails. White fellas brought disease, grog, hate, fear, racism and slavery to a land that deserved none of it, and for that and everything after, I am sorry.
To those of you who survived, and thrived, I thank you – you made this nation great despite everything inflicted on you.
Secondly, I think of the thousands of convict Britons, chained in the hulls of prison hulks, awaiting their sentences for petty crimes and the inevitable transportation to the far side of the world. It wasn’t so long ago you were told the earth was flat, and now they who must be obeyed are sending you to the opposite side of it! The very idea must have curdled the blood in your veins.
To those of you who survived, and thrived, I thank you – you made this nation great, despite everything you endured.
Third, I think of the millions of those since who’ve arrived on our shores, by air or by sea, as all our ancestors have done. You come seeking refuge and safety, the promise of hope and the chance to succeed, and you are not always greeted with open arms.
To the Irish, the Greeks and Italians, the Japanese and Germans, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Africans, the Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians and Syrians – you deserve to live in homes without fear of bombs, to go to schools without fear of guns and to drive roads without fear of tanks and drones. You are welcome here, if you wish to stay and you make our nation richer in doing so.
Despite everything you have endured, you have survived and thrived, and I thank you – you make this nation great.
We are such a young country, only becoming a federation of states in 1901. We have so much to learn and so far to go, but we can’t travel the road to nationhood while we bicker and fight amongst ourselves.
This Australia Day, I implore you – reach out to your neighbour and share a meal, a chat, a smile. Try to think of life in their shoes, of where they have come from, their background, their history, their family. Be open to the amazing places their friendship can take you without leaving your street or town.
Leave aside your perceptions based on clothing, skin colour, accent, or religion and seek to know the person – the Australian – beneath all that. Being Australian isn’t about what you look like, what you eat, what you wear or how you speak. It’s about how you think, how you behave, how you treat others.
And if Australia really is the nation of ‘the fair go’, then let’s give everyone a bloody good go, not just those we think we know.