It is easy to criticise Richard Di Natale’s pledge to step up the Australian Greens’ campaign to move Australia Day from January 26 as a typical virtue-signalling gesture. But before dismissing it as an “unrepresentative far-left agenda”, we should realise that the underlying view of Australian history reflects much of the thinking that has informed the bipartisan approach to indigenous affairs for decades.
Supporters of changing the date claim that a new and inclusive national day is needed to address our historical legacy of racism, oppression and exclusion of indigenous people — an “ongoing legacy”, as Di Natale described it — that allegedly accounts for indigenous Australians continuing to be denied the Australian Dream.
The problem with moving Australia Day isn’t that this would promote a distorted, so-called black-armband view of our past. The realities of colonial dispossession and consequent destruction of Aboriginal society are the incontrovertible founding truths of our national existence. The real problem with the push to change the date is that it distorts our present by misrepresenting the kind of country we have become.
Changing the date would not only downplay the huge progress that has been made in recent times towards overcoming our racist history and closing the gap in social outcomes between most indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It would also obscure the real reason why appalling gaps still persist for some indigenous people. Contrary to what the Change the Daters claim about the legacy of our racist history, contemporary indigenous disadvantage has not been caused by the nation having done too little to right the wrongs of the past. In reality, the indigenous policies specifically designed to make up for the founding sins of our history have ended up making things worse for the minority of indigenous Australians in some rural and remote communities who remain locked out of the freedoms and opportunities enjoyed in mainstream Australia.
The natural alternative date that has been proposed to the present “invasion day” is as problematic in terms of addressing the purported sense of pain and suffering felt by some indigenous Australians on January 26. Warren Mundine has suggested switching Australia Day to January 1 — the anniversary of the inauguration of the Australian Federation in 1901 — as this is the real date on which Australian nationhood came into being. Yet our federal fathers — fearful of racial division — were determined to create a nation that was white and pure. This goal was pursued not only by barring non-whites via the racially discriminatory immigration policy introduced in 1901 but also via the Franchise Act of 1902, which specifically excluded “aboriginal natives” from the electoral rolls and from holding the right to vote.
We have come a long way from the prejudiced and discriminatory days of “White Australia”. The transformation officially began with the end of the White Australia policy in 1966 and the 1967 referendum that allowed the federal government to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census.
It is now commonplace to acknowledge the remarkable changes in modern, multiracial Australia over the past half century. Hence, a unifying theme of Australia Day is to celebrate how we have become one of the most successful and harmonious “immigrant nations” in the world. It is equally common, though, for exceptions to be made to this national story of rising above our racist past in relation to indigenous Australians. However this view of our history — and of indigenous people as the perpetual victims of an unbroken historical chain of racism and disadvantage dating from 1788 — is outdated.
Nowadays 80 per cent of indigenous Australians — who mostly live in southeastern metropolitan Australia — have the same employment, health, housing and other social outcomes as their non-indigenous peers.
As the ABC’s indigenous editor, Stan Grant, recognised in a Quarterly Essay published last year, the vast majority of indigenous people can now participate in the Australian Dream in a similar fashion to the array of migrant groups that have settled here since the end of World War II.
The remaining 20 per cent of indigenous Australians who suffer well-known social problems and gaps live mainly in rural and remote areas. These are the government-supported homeland communities established in the 1970s under the policies of Aboriginal self-determination, which sought to address the legacies of colonialism and dispossession by enabling indigenous people to return to their traditional lands and live in traditional ways. This well-meaning project has proven counter-productive. The “separatist” policies employed to address the past have, in practice, excluded a minority of indigenous Australians from the Australian Dream.
The push to change Australia Day is perpetuating the flawed kind of thinking about “fixing” history that has marred indigenous affairs for decades. It ignores the immutable reality of Australian history: the fate of both indigenous and non-indigenous people is to share this nation continent — and to figure out how best to ensure our common national life gives everyone a fair go. The celebration of Australia Day should not therefore gloss over the tragedy of our history, any more than it should simply prompt the donning of black armbands in mourning for the shameful aspects of our past.
What it should be — based on a deeper understanding of the full sweep of our national history — is an opportunity for all Australians to appreciate how the nation has transcended the racist legacies of colonialism and White Australia and is approaching a goal the federal fathers thought impossible: the full inclusion of indigenous people into the nation.
Australia Day would also further this goal and serve a more constructive national purpose if its observance spurred a rethink about why the “gap” persists today. The separatist policies that have sought to make amends for our past continue to deny the most disadvantaged indigenous Australians their share in the Australian Dream.
Jeremy Sammut has a PhD in Australian history. He is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of The History Wars Matter.