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Why I don't support changing the date of Amnesia Day



I don't know many activists within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community who don't experience a feeling of dread each January. We go through the excitement that is the birth of the New Year only to run head-first into the wall of stress and emotional labour that is dealing with another 'Australia Day'.

Survival Day protesters 2012And yes, I choose to put quotation marks around 'Australia Day' because within the Indigenous community I am much more likely to hear it referred to as 'Invasion Day' and 'Survival Day'.

This is not news to a lot of Australians, who then get offended and so we tend to get into these exhausting and repetitive conversations every single year. And they are repetitive.

I am also a fan of the term 'Amnesia Day', because not only is there a deeply embedded amnesia in this country which forgets injustices such as 'terra nullius', massacres, the Stolen Generations and so forth, but the conversations we have on these things each year seem to be forgotten by the next year and the 'proud Australians' again expect Indigenous people to happily assimilate into the festivities.

It's therefore been an interesting few week. It started with the release of the annual Meat and Livestock Association ad promoting the eating of lamb around Australia Day.

Given the Association's ads in previous years, which seemed to promote jingoism, racism and sexism more than they did meat products — not to mention the fact that a couple of months ago, a leaked script showed it being considered so offensive that they couldn't find any Aboriginal people willing to be in the cast — my hopes were not high.

Thankfully, they did alter the script somewhat but the result remained divisive. While many applauded its positive attempt to show diversity as well as completely omit any reference to 'Australia Day', I echo the thoughts of other Aboriginal commentators such as Nakkiah Lui and Luke Pearson that the outright erasure of Invasion and Frontier violence was on the nose.

The ad completely omitted why it is that we protest in the first place. I was relived and amused therefore when the artists from Cope ST Collective released what they felt was a more accurate telling of the story, while also promoting their views that the date of celebration needed to be changed.


"I can only conclude from all this that changing the date would be little more than celebrating the invasion and genocide of Indigenous people on another day."


For what it's worth, I find I no longer support changing the date, although I admire the fact that Fremantle City Council has done exactly this after consulting widely with their local Indigenous community. For many years I felt that if the government considered alternatives to the present 'Australia Day' — such as the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, or Mabo Day, or even during NAIDOC Week — we could come to a more inclusive agreement which celebrates all of the heritage this country should be proud of. However the past few years of Indigenous activism have left me cynical. 

Let's be honest: while in the early 1990s people in this country may have been able to tell me what the significance of the Mabo ruling was and why it was so important, nowadays a good portion have either forgotten or are too young and too post-Howard's history wars to have a clue what I am talking about. What's more, any gains which were made both within Indigenous land rights and self-determination following this ruling have been largely dismantled by successive governments.

In recent years, Indigenous activists have had to hit the streets because the WA government is closing down homelands communities and forcing people into larger regional centres. We've protested the Northern Territory Intervention which required communities to sign their lands over to the government in lease agreements and, not coincidentally, seemed to lead to an explosion in proposals for 'developments' on Aboriginal lands such as fracking operations and nuclear waste dumps.

These examples, plus many more, show regressions rather than advances in this country when it comes to the recognition of Indigenous land rights.

Similarly, I feel that the legacy of the 1967 Referendum has been misappropriated in a bid to push the contentious agenda of Constitutional Recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This was flagged initially by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott who, for some strange reason, felt that having the recognition referendum during the year of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum was desirable. After all, nothing highlights just how little this country has progressed more than the fact that it's taken five decades to move from being counted in the census to being 'recognised'.

The past few years have also seen Indigenous activists take to the streets to protest against Deaths in Custody — nearly 30 years after the Royal Commission recommendations were tabled. We've had to protest the removal of children from family and community at rates higher than ever before. We've protested against human rights abuses and Indigenous youth incarceration rates due to incidents such as Don Dale Detention Centre. And we're still always trying to get recognition of Frontier Wars, the massacres, the rapes and the enslavement which form this country's brutal history.

In short, the things that we were fighting for decades ago — indeed going all the way back to the 1938 Day of Mourning — seem to be very similar to the things we're still fighting for now. Australia is therefore not a country which has acknowledged and rectified its history; rather it seems content to reinforce its amnesia. I can only conclude from all this that changing the date would be little more than celebrating the invasion and genocide of Indigenous people on another day. It's therefore unlikely that I will be able to stop protesting this celebration, regardless of the day it's held upon.

Let's instead start coming to terms with our past. Let's rectify all the injustice, get real on questions of cultural respect and reparations, and create, rather than enforce, a unified country which can move forward. Let's really start working towards a day we can all celebrate.


Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, the National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU, and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Stolen Generations, Australia Day



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Existing comments

On the significance of the Mabo ruling, and who Eddie Mabo was, I wonder why no movie has ever been made about him and his achievements? If 'Hoges' and Molly Meldrum are worthy candidates, why not Mabo? What could be achieved by making such a movie, in terms of white Australia coming to terms with it's past?

Matt | 23 January 2017  

Great article Celeste, or should I say deadly?

Ro Bailey | 23 January 2017  

Thanks Celeste for reminding of the need for more work on reconciliation and justice. For some time now I don't 'celebrate' this day but attend Mass instead to pray for change - true reconciliation not just the cardboard cut out kind. I read recently in regular press about changing the nature of the day by having silence at some point to give scope to reflection and not to forget the darker chapters of our founding path to becoming a modern democratic nation. It needs to be recognised there was complex lore in place in this land when the Brits landed but the colonial mindset at the time could have meant any nation at the forefront could have colonised and given the disparity between ways of interacting, been as brutal or worse. In addition to lamenting what has been lost there needs to be recognition of the contribution made of bringing Australia into alignment with the rest of the world as a nation state and instances where settlers and indigenous worked together as in Alan Tucker's 'Too Many Captain Cooks' Trilogy or how Patyegarang and a young soldier worked together which may enable the salvaging of language from the Eora nation as celebrated in dance by Bangarra. A way forward may involve using the date to finalise Treaties since this was missed at the founding as a way to recognise the survival and reclamation of indigenous culture.

Gordana Martinovich | 23 January 2017  

Hi @Matt, just thought I'd share, the ABC co-produced and screen a biopic on Mabo a few years ago. It starred Jimi Bani and Deborah Mailman, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mabo_(film) In Victoria, it's on the list of films schools can chose from, for students to study/analyse for Yr 12/VCE English. While it doesn't represent a huge slice of the general population, many students have been/will be exposed to the story via that channel. There's also a doco "Mabo: life of an island man", though I think that's a little older, probably has less exposure. Cheers

SP | 23 January 2017  

Celeste, thanks. I can tell you how I, as a non-Indigenous Australian, feel about a change of date for Australia Day. It would mean that the government is making an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the concerns of Indigenous people about this particular day. It would be a start. A long way to go but a start.

Pam | 23 January 2017  

In the UK the 1066 invasion is called the Norman Conquest. It was planned as an invasion. I don't think 1788 was planned as an invasion: more a tentative attempt at prison reform. Certainly, when I was growing up in Melbourne in the 1960s there was little mention of Australia's long ATSI past. I can understand ATSI people being ambiguous about celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet and what followed. I tend not to worry about things such as the lamb commercial you refer to. I think it was crass but much advertising is. I think we still have a way to go before we reach the sort of society you want. I think people like you need to state their case with calm and dignity, as you have. There are now many Aboriginal and Islander people, such as Kathy Freeman and Stan Grant, who are a real example for all Australians. Hopefully this will continue. ATSI people and culture need to be seen as normal and mainstream. I think this is beginning to happen.

Edward Fido | 24 January 2017  

A good article and a good point Celeste. Don't change the date, but change everything else about it. The date is significant to all, but let us embrace an honest theme that is more soberside and is significant to all.

John Whitehead | 24 January 2017  

Thanks for a great article, Celeste. My reaction is: why do we need a national day at all? How can any one historical event - tragic or triumphal - encapsulate our complex history?

Frank Golding | 24 January 2017  

Thank you Celeste. I have recently visited Germany, and have been struck by how they have acknowledged and accepted responsibility for the genocide they conducted against the Jewish people in WWII, and I believe they are about to acknowledge that they conducted a genocide in Namibia in 1904-1908. I don't understand why we in Australia can't also acknowledge what is the Original Sin of white settlement of Australia. We are all suffering from our inability to do so.

Mary | 24 January 2017  

I agree with Celeste that Australia/Invasion/Survival Day or Amnesia Day is not a good time to celebrate the coming of the Australian nation. That is why I support having another day to celebrate our national day. This should be a day that Australia's first people should be happy to accept. After all, their links with this land goes back 60,000 years, while British and Celtic occupation is a little more than 200 years. I come from a British/Scottish background, but I think if we want true reconciliation, we have to admit that the invasion of this country was very brutal and too much Aboriginal blood has stained the wattle and we have to acknowledge our indigenous people. This should be recognised on our flag as well. I think that replacing the Union Jack which really only celebrates British imperial wars with an Aboriginal symbol is the way to go. And we need to reinstate the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island Commission to enable our indigenous people to have a more meaningful say in national affairs. The abolition of this body in 2005 was another act which undervalued Aboriginal influence in national affairs.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 24 January 2017  

Australia Day for me has never had much of Australia in it. I have seen it more as a New South Wales eastern states celebration. So South Austalians and Western Australians may see it differently. Speaking as a South Australian we have our own version of "Invasion Day", Dec 28th Proclamation Day, which celebrates the arrival of free settlers, not convicts, from Great Britain to this colony of South Australia in 1836. The Colonial authorities recognised the original inhabitants in the Letters Patent, establishing the province and issued by King William IV which included the statement "Provided Always that nothing in those our Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own Persons or in the Persons of their Descendants of any Lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives". This was intended to establish and protect the rights of Aboriginal people. Unfortunately it was not enforced. So change the date to celebrate the actual foundation of the Commonwealth, when we became Australians rather than just Victorians or Queenslanders ........

Peter | 24 January 2017  

My father lost his farm and went broke in the '29 depression. We, the family of 11 children suffered for years. It was a survival story and we all came out stronger in the final event. I sometimes wonder if this attitude still exists today.

Patrick Howley | 24 January 2017  

Thanks Celeste, for yet another reminder to us of the settler society that Australia Day has at least an ambiguous meaning, and for many, a very negative meaning for Indigenous Australians. While John Whitehead says, "Don't change the date, but change everything else about it", I recommend 2 January, as the date to celebrate the 1 January 1901 federation of the six British colonies into the one Commonwealth of Australia; held over 1 day for the obvious reason that many are not in a frame of mind to attend marches and other formal events after celebrating New Years Eve till after midnight.

Ian Fraser | 24 January 2017  

damn fine summary of the current shape of things

Kit Kelen | 24 January 2017  

I am of Irish ancestry. My Great, great grandfather was transported to Australia in the 1850's for 'sedition against the Crown'. I can understand the response of our indigenous people to the 'celebration' of Australia Day ..I cringe each year! I v9isited Ireland . I am impressed by the way the Irish people have put the abuses of their English colonisers behind them-the exception remains Northern Ireland As a former teacher of history I always explained to my students the reality of our history. They were told of what actually happened. I am grateful to my Lecturers at the UNE History Faculty who taught me. More recently I visited New Zealand and was lucky to speak with some Maori elders .. I was struck by their drive and enthusiasm to make the most of their opportunities .The advice given was to encourage our Indigenous people to get off their backsides and develop ,their own unique cultures as his people have done .He thought a Treaty would be a healing process but not the answer to the massive problems confronting our indigenous people. Many former colonies of Britain have this problem in their history, we are not alone.

Gavin | 24 January 2017  

I vote for Peter's idea.

Gavan | 24 January 2017  

How about Australia learns the full history, that white Australia is celebrating the tearing apart of their ancestors history too! They weren't free settlers on that first fleet! Maybe then they might think and remember!

Kelly | 24 January 2017  

One needs only to look at those of our neighbours who are run by their indigenes to know that if white colonisation had not come to 'Australia', this continent today would not be bountiful enough to be a member of the First World. Ill fortune for some but good fortune for many more came on January 26 and that date should be remembered in all of its ambiguity, not merely because that was the day when the First Fleet arrived, but, more so, the day when the theological mystery of why good can be allowed to be a consequence of evil became a practical rather than an academic question for the multitudes who have since benefited from the original dispossession. The success of the First Fleet experiment came about because of God's permissive will. It could not have come from his active will unless he had something against the native people. But, why was he permissive? Why did he not make the experiment fail? If one is to think about these things, the day to do so would seem to be January 26.

Roy Chen Yee | 24 January 2017  

I am pleased Celeste Liddle mentioned the massacres of Aborigines. When I was young an elderly retired commonwealth policeman told me he had seen a large mass of human bones in far western Queensland - the site of a massacre. We know there were many others. They definitely should not be forgotten. Warren Mundine in a feature in the Courier-Mail, Brisbane, (24/1/17) writes, "Indigenous people overwhelmingly feel anger, sadness and grief about the chain of events beginning on January 26, 1788." Under a heading, " We do not reject Australia" and another, "We can't celebrate unity on a day representing conflict and conquest,". January 1, 1901, should be the date celebrated because Australia came into being then and it's a day everyone can unite behind. Mundine suggests the last Friday in January be the public holiday. A letter writer in The Australian (same day) says the celebration of January 26 as Australia Day is ludicrous.She gives her reasons and says the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was passed on July 5 1900. In her opinion that should be the date celebrated. It would not be difficult to decide on a celebratory Federation date. .

Rod Manning | 25 January 2017  

It is important that we keep learning, making sure history is known and we all keep communicating in an intelligent way.

Evelaine berry | 26 January 2017  

A solution - a treaty as in NZ which gives the Aboriginal people sovereignty. The Anglo-Saxon descendants in this country can continue to celebrate their Invasion Day and the Aboriginal people can celebrate their own Invasion Day of 50,000 years ago when they invaded this continent from the north and displaced the earlier indigenous population.

Historian | 26 January 2017  

When the First fleet arrived,Captain Arthur Phillip, the Governor issued a proclamation ordering the settlers (convicts and military)to respect the local indigenous people .Sadly conflict soon erupted. We must acknowledge the lack of knowledge of the convicts and the precedence set up in other parts of the British Empire regarding the treatment of native peoples by colonizers, both British and other European powers. There were far worse excesses in other colonies, particularly in Africa, including slavery. I suspect many indigenous people were killed by the early settlers for violating 'English Law' , of which they had no knowledge(stealing/killing livestock) .From my Uni studies there were no sanctioned massacres. However sadly nothing was done by the authorities to punish the perpetrators, except the Myall Creek Massacre where they were tried and hung. When in Munich, Germany, having just visited Dachau , we were deeply affected by a lady who must have been born post Holocaust, apologizing to us for the atrocious committed by her forebears. Can she or we, be held responsible for the sins of our forebears who had very different social values to our selves? Do change the date!

Gavin | 27 January 2017  

Had Britain not lost its North American colonies it would have had no need to transport convicts anywhere else - so 4 July is as good an Australia day as 26 January. Had Phillip found potable water in the waterways around Botany Bay - where his orders told him to establish the penal settlement - the date might have been the arrival in Botany Bay (I think 24 January) instead of the 26 January date on which Phillip's reconnaissance of Port Jackson found the Tank Stream. Given that white Australia has been mucking up Australia's fresh water resources ever since, 26 January remains appropriate for remorseful remembrance - hardly a celebration.

David Arthur | 27 January 2017  

Jingoism has long seemed to me, a white, Anglo Aussie, to be a problematic part and parcel of Australia Day. Which is why I rather enjoyed the piss-taking Lamb ads. Clearly however I was blind to their racist flaws. Invasion Day is certainly a more accurate descriptor but I'm not sure how constructive it would be in the longer term as the primary one. Survival Day seems to me to have far more potential. First and foremost it should focus on the survival of Indigenous Australians and culture in the face of violent invasion. But from there discussion could extend to the very real survival of others, such as some of the Irish, or some British poor, forcibly sent to Australia and survived the rough end of British justice. There are migrants and refugees who made it to these shores after difficult and even perilous journeys having survived the ravages of wars and/or heinous regimes. And there are stories of individual Australians and Australian communities who survived natural or human-created disasters. Thus while the travesty of Invasion Day ought never be underplayed, Survival Day opens up an additional possibility for a multi-stranded narrative with common historical truth-telling and respectful listening.

Ruth Dunnicliff-Hagan | 28 January 2017  

Gavin refers to far worse excesses in colonialiism and mentions slavery. but if you call up Britain's Colonial Shame, Slave Owners Huge Payouts, you may wonder if Britain's huge colonial slave industry could have worked in far- away Australia it may well have been introduced. Although the Mansfield declaration preceded the first fleet, Britain was (or a British elite was) still waxing rich from its slave empire in the West Indies Indies and elsewhere. When the British-owned slaves were eventually released the huge compensation went not to the slaves but to the already-rich and powerful owners. Current Aborigines and South Sea Islanders claim huge sums of money remain unpaid for the hard toil done in an earlier Australia. Many Islanders, strapping young men, died early when working in the canefields of Queensland, their somewhat meagre earnings unpaid. Aboriginal slavery claims are worth a look. Our great colonial governor Lachlan Macquarie brought two slaves to Australia with him but he later turned against slavery. His slaves had been purchased in India by his first wife (he looked after them). I write great, but it is now claimed he sanctioned an Aboriginal massacre south west of Sydney.

Rod Manning | 30 January 2017  

I agree that we need to find an alternate date to celebrate as a united and inclusive people. Perhaps the referendum date in 1967 or another in consultation with indigenous folk.

Yvonne Horsfield | 30 January 2017  

We Brits have a lot to answer for; I would like to apologise on our behalf.

Ian Brown | 06 September 2017  

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