Australia Day: celebrate our Indigenous heritage, our British inheritance and our multicultural achievement.
My mum came here at 17, an Indian scholarship student from a sugar cane farm in Fiji. At Monash she was spotted by an overexcited Gujarati who subsequently forsook his marks to chase my mum around the halls of Mannix College. It paid off for him.
My brother and I were born in Melbourne. We enjoyed the opportunity and comfort that my parents did not. My mum and brother barrack for the Aussie cricket team, not India – much to dad’s annoyance. Australia is my homeland.
Yet there are times I have felt less at home. The sense in which Australia is a home primarily for white Anglos is changing, but it comes out sometimes in people’s attitudes. Odd, given the first peoples of this land were black. Perhaps that’s why I became interested in matters of Indigenous justice.
I first felt it when a room full of cross-legged four-year-olds chanted “black Shireen, black Shireen!” at me in kindergarten. Even at four, I gathered that “black” had derogatory connotations.
And if our friend felt estranged in her own country because she had to spend a few hours eating curry in a house full of Indians, how estranged might the Indigenous minority feel in the position of poverty and powerlessness which has, since 1788, been their lot?
Sometimes it’s less polite. A drunk outside a nightclub once yelled out to call me an attractive “monkey”, or some similarly perverse compliment/insult. I was speechless. In those moments I could almost feel the colonialist’s cane prodding my skin, holding up his magnifying glass to check me for fleas before declaring me a good specimen. In those moments, I feel for Aboriginal people.
Last year I felt for Adam Goodes, who got called similar names, but more startlingly, whose on-field expression of Indigenous culture was broadly treated like some sort of unacceptably foreign abnormality, rather than an expression of something fundamentally Australian.
I’m sure many other Australians have experienced similar things. These small racisms should not be overblown. Australia is by and large a tolerant and peaceful country. At the same time, I think we can do better.
Australia Day should be a day to celebrate our Indigenous heritage, our British inheritance and our multicultural achievement (to quote Noel Pearson). But the date we celebrate is the day Arthur Phillip declared British sovereignty: January 26, 1788 is an Anglo celebration of British colonisation and Indigenous dispossession; hence the understandable view of some that it is better termed Invasion Day or Survival Day. It is not a historically accurate date to celebrate Australia: Australia as a nation did not come officially into being until January 1, 1901, when the constitution uniting the disparate colonies came into force.
That constitution recognised no home and accommodated no fair place for Indigenous peoples. It actively excluded them. The constitution and the laws and policies that flowed from it treated Indigenous people as strangers in their own country. That is why reform is needed. Some, however, deny that Indigenous people have been discriminated against. I’m often amazed at how some attempt to re-write history in their effort to undercut arguments for constitutional reform.
At a constitutional conference last year, a Victorian Liberal Senator stood up and claimed that Indigenous constitutional recognition was not needed because Indigenous people are not subject to discrimination. He further claimed that Indigenous people have had equal voting rights since 1902. The statement is untrue.
Indigenous people didn’t achieve complete voting parity until 1965.
I tried to correct the Senator, but he insisted his version of the facts was correct. He promised to send me his references to prove it. The references never came.
It made me think: if a member of the federal government doesn’t accept documented historical facts, all freely available on the Electoral Commission website, what hope does the nation have of achieving appropriate constitutional recognition and reform? What hope do we have of achieving justice and reconciliation if the nation’s leaders can’t even honestly appraise the constitutional problem we are trying to solve?
The Senator’s ignorance caused me to pause, though, and I checked my research. I’m glad I did, because more weird facts emerged. I discovered that Indian people actually won Commonwealth voting rights decades before Indigenous people.
Australia Day seems a fitting day to declare that no Australian should feel like a stranger in their own country. It is a good day for immigrants, the descendants of immigrants and Indigenous Australians alike to declare that this is not just a white country: this is our country too. This should feel like home for all of us.
Perhaps we need a new Australia Day; one that better includes all Australians. Perhaps it should be the date we formally bring together our Indigenous heritage, our British inheritance and our multicultural character. Perhaps it should be the date the nation votes for Indigenous constitutional recognition, to ensure the injustices of the past cannot happen again.
READ: The Age