Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Australia Day as a day for humility



Over recent years discussion of Australia Day has largely focused on how appropriate the date is for a national celebration. Many Indigenous Australians see the arrival of the First Fleet as an invasion which destroyed Indigenous nations and cultures and left their descendants disadvantaged strangers in their own land. The obdurate refusal to consider changing the date inevitably makes the public holiday a symbol of exclusion as well as of national unity.

Koomurri dancers during the Arrival of Fire and Smoking Ceremony at Barangaroo on 26 January 2019 in Sydney. (Photo by Cole Bennetts/Getty Images)The inappropriateness of the date, however, has some beneficial aspects. It focuses attention on the relationships between Indigenous Australians and later arrivals, and between Indigenous and the largely European cultures in Australia. Public discussion of these relationships often manifests prejudice and self-satisfaction. But it could also encourage humility and reconciliation, inviting a shared conversation about how our conflicted past has influenced the present Australian reality, and how reflection on it might shape a better future.

In what we hope is the aftermath of the catastrophic fires this conversation is particularly important. In addition to the reviews of the factors that made them so destructive and of how we might better prepare for future fire seasons, we need also to ask larger questions about how Indigenous Australians before European settlement managed the land and how our agricultural and economic practices have contributed to the perilous situation in which we now find ourselves.

Australia Day would be wasted if it were devoted simply to self-congratulation and technological wizardry with no care for the future. It is a time for hard thinking about both our Indigenous and our European heritage.

In Australia this kind of thinking meets strong opposition. It is often based in belief that the settler culture is shared by all Australians and that it is a superior and richer culture than that of Indigenous Australians. The claim of superiority attaches to the ability of settlers to develop the land. It insists that the new arrivals had much to teach and nothing to learn from the first Australians. These assumptions, however, are called into question by the challenges that now face Australia.

When comparing cultures it is easy to contrast an abstract and idealised account of one's own culture with a superficial and critical view of other cultures. It allows us to claim for ourselves a Western culture with all the learning, texts, art and monuments associated with the phrase, and to set it against a supposedly nomadic, illiterate life of Indigenous peoples. Such a perspective frames our own culture as advanced and Indigenous cultures as primitive.

If we compare the operative values, forms of association and rituals of the two cultures rather than the values claimed for them, the picture becomes more complex. The allegedly primitive may have a richness and complexity in living, and the seemingly advanced to be retrogressive and thin.


"The growth of the individual was tied to the wellbeing of the community which, in turn, was tied to the care of the earth and its flora and fauna."


The Indigenous cultures that were supplanted by the European were communal. In them individuals found meaning through assimilating their received place in society and in country. The growth of the individual was tied to the wellbeing of the community which, in turn, was tied to the care of the earth and its flora and fauna. This world view and the rituals that embodied it were carefully passed on from one generation to another and governed people's behaviour. Fire was used to prune and promote growth, but not allowed to destroy it. The effect of this care was to conserve the earth which supported human life.

Western culture, as it was represented in the early settlers and their descendants, put high value on individual initiative and the amassing of wealth. It was competitive, often happy to operate at the edge of law and sometimes notably beyond it. It saw land as something for individuals to take possession of and to exploit, not to preserve and sustain for the good of the community.

Central to the public culture was the development of technology to exploit the environment, and of financial systems to underwrite the exploitation. Morality was understood to govern personal and interpersonal behaviour, but it did not apply to relationships to land or to social justice.

Both these summaries, of course, are simplified and generalised, with perhaps a bias to romanticise Indigenous cultures and to demonise the settlers' culture. But taken together they invite us to ask whether the dominant individualist and technological culture in Australia has reached a point when it will destroy the world that it exploits. And whether Indigenous cultures offer, not technological solutions, but a more mature a way of imagining our relationship to the natural world.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Koomurri dancers during the Arrival of Fire and Smoking Ceremony at Barangaroo on 26 January 2019 in Sydney. (Photo by Cole Bennetts/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australia Day, Invasion Day, bushfires, climate change



submit a comment

Existing comments

An interesting read with some challenging sentiments. This theme of traditional cultural land management prior to colonization and perceived continuation of the skill for the following 200 years troubles me. There's no evidence of the early practices other than some certainty fires occurred over millennia, perhaps many deliberate but unknown if lit for purpose of hazard reduction; I don't want to dispute the care afforded the land by it's peoples but the tribal nature could lead one to understand some fires possibly were little different to 2020 without the PFAS and helicopters. While I am aware cultural burns continued in Queensland I have reservations that traditional techniques were either employed or documented in NSW or Victoria after colonial interests secured leases and squatters holdings. I doubt any indigenous burn was permitted or performed for 100 years. A farmer's acreage was judged by his ability to clear fell the land and enable cropping without the obstacle of trees or stumps; perhaps misguided, but if you consider all our cities are built on the most arable farm land and river water used to flush away urban waste for convenience we've been getting it wrong for a long time.

Ray | 21 January 2020  

Reflecting on relationships in our multi-cultural land is a thoughtful and healing way to encounter Australia Day. We best celebrate who we are by the emphasis we put on our connection to each other and to this place as our common home. The European world, at the time of white settlement in Australia, considered its framework as the apex of human achievement. Now we realise that the world is more complex. And more instinctive. We have the opportunity to share our existence in a less confrontational and more humane way. Belonging to each other and to the land.

Pam | 21 January 2020  

Father Andrew, thank you once again for your thoughtful yet provocative article. I have just finished reading Bruce Pascoe's book Dark Emu which describes in some detail some of the Indigenous cultures you refer to. We have a lot to learn.

John Casey | 21 January 2020  

I think the bushfires are a very clear consequence of the disrespect not just for the ancient knowledge of indigenes elders, regarding the care of Australia. But also the turning away and the inhuman treatment of refugees seeking a safe haven here. Humility, is a good new place to start to start over from. To understand ourselves, others and a much needed new sentiment to be meditate on, especially by those in goverment. We only know how bad it is. If we have been through it ourselves. Now we know what it means to flee from danger. Every Australian fleeing from fire or smoke now knows, what any refugee seeking empathy and help knows. We all know now. What do they say about tall poppys? What goes around comes around?

Mary | 21 January 2020  

An interesting Reflection Father Andrew, as we approach Australia Day, which strictly reflects the First Settlement foundation , not the country we call Australia. As a climatologist, I am not an expert on Ingenious treatment of the environment, but I readily agree that European treatment of our fragile land has been highly exploitative and very destructive . I have just come back from a trip to Cobargo (NSW Far South Coast) and seen the destruction of infrastructure, but more importantly, the landscape. No doubt 'wild fires' have occurred as the climate of Australia has become drier over the past ten thousand years . The Ecosystem has evolved with fire as part of regeneration. Since white settlement changes in land use has vastly increased the risk of wild fires and their destructive force. Human induced changes in climate;warmer temperatures, decreased rainfall and higher evaporation, as seen in the current drought has vastly increased the incidence of mega fires. As others have written here and elsewhere, we have to urgently come to respect our fragile land not exploit it. Gavin O'Brien, FRMetS

Gavin O'Brien | 22 January 2020  

An excellent article Andrew. We all have much to learn from other cultures but the greatest impediment to that learning is hubris about one’s own.

Ginger Meggs | 22 January 2020  

The time is long overdue for this country to embrace its Aboriginal people by recognition of their sovereignty through treaty, through a new national anthem sung in Aboriginal dialect and English (as in the emancipated NZ and S Africa) and relegating the Union Jack on our flag to a place of inferiority perhaps a mere outline behind the Federation star and replace its place of prominence with the Aboriginal flag. Such a flag would truly indicate all that this country is. Australia Day could then be celebrated on the day that this transformation became reality.

john frawley | 22 January 2020  

"...continuation of the skill for the following 200 years troubles me. There's no evidence of the early practices..." Ray, You need to read Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu.

Paul Smith | 22 January 2020  

Paul, you do me the injustice of thinking I should read Dark Emu (so I can either dispel my concerns or perhaps find the missing evidence?) The mystique of the book and celestial anomaly both become clearer under close examination. The emu in the sky is awash with the light of stars not visible to the naked eye; it vanishes in a telescope. Not dissimilar, I find the book is a collection of notionary anecdotal heresay with a few "facts" interspersed. My understanding is the author is receiving legal scrutiny from indigenous bodies; who owns the Emu? You're welcome to adopt suggestions of what might have been...I choose to look closer.

Ray | 22 January 2020  

This is an issue which is raised in these columns every Australia Day. What does it mean to be Australian? I think, if you can't comprehend it in a mystic sense, you really don't get it. To me, it's best comprehended by hearing the Seekers sing 'I am Australian'. Everyone worth mentioning is mentioned. Keith Potger came to theses shores as a boy, just like I did. He's a fine man, as are the other two men and Judith Durham is a very fine woman, who has known many of life's trials, including the death of her husband. What makes Australia is the people. Care for and restore the land? Sure thing. One of the good things the recent horrific bushfire season has brought home is that we are all in this together.

Edward Fido | 23 January 2020  

Astonishing to see this article written by a priest, without a single mention of any aspect of Christianity or the civilization that it created. Apparently it's all just a matter of culture and technology. Yes we all celebrate on Australia Day the countless blessings this has brought to our beloved country. Nobody claims it's perfect or seeks to minimise in any way the injustices suffered by our indigenous people. Indeed they themselves celebrate the "coming of the Light". There is no "debate about ver the date" of Australia Day except among a minority of journalists and others trying to whip up racial tensions and divisions for their own advantage. There are numerous other days and even whole weeks dedicated to celebrating our beloved indigenous peoples and commemorating various aspects of their history, and all Australians are happy to recognise them all. What about dropping the negativity and joining Australians of all races seeking to bring our country closer to God?

Peter K | 24 January 2020  

Andrew I’m sorry but I don’t think this is one of your better pieces. While repentance for the past sins and the call to humility are important gospel values I think you are a little lopsided. For instance it is well recognised that the Celtic heritage which much of the Catholic Church in Australia grew from had a deep connection to land and a generous attitude toward our First Nations peoples. Tomorrow I will take my mother to visit family where her grandparents were first settlers - arriving from Tipperary in the 1880s (where my first cousins still live to this day). Their eldest surviving son (my grandfather) had a close connection to the traditional owners and when they decided to move further away from white settlements, they begged him to take care of the young children whom they wished to leave behind. I agree Australia Day is not a time for triumphalism but we need to recognise that not everything was bad.

Rob McCahill | 25 January 2020  

Two reactions. No mention of the religious colonization of missionaries. What have we learned about spirituality from those who were here when colonist arrived and since? Then how would it be if the Chinese nation decided now that they wanted to plant their flag on Botany Bay or Sydney?

Michael D. Breen | 26 January 2020  

Thank you Andrew for another well considered piece that courageously names some of the challenges facing Australia and its traditional owners. The media is generally incapable of meaningfully engaging these challenges. It causes me to reflect on a time when smoking was seen as a social must with little regard for the health implications. Only with the benefit of time and advances in medicine / health has society realised its previous position was flawed and ill informed. I suspect the same applies here as the next generation will be better equipped to fully dissect the notions of “settlement” and give the relationships between traditional owners and subsequent arrivals genuine meaning. Your article reminds me of the words of Kutcha Edwards who describes Paul Kelly (Australian singer songwriter) as a person held in dear regard by the Aboriginal community because he sincerely writes / sings about Aboriginal people but does not speak “for” aboriginal people. I really look forward to the young Aboriginal voices in this matter to lead the conversation as past, present and future of Australia are understood and articulated respectfully and with the wisdom of oral traditions passed down over thousands of years, cultural sensitivity, care for nature and the environment and insights from books such as The Biggest Estate on Earth. Thank you for placing this important matter at the forefront of our imaginations.

Rob | 27 January 2020  

I guess Aboriginal land care / management would have been completely different if there had been 25 million of them. Traditional food gathering would not have sustained them and burden on the land, fauna and water resources could not have been protected with just traditional burning practices. The confidence some people are placing on traditional knowledge is over rated and over stated when the increase in population is considered.

Phillip A Haar | 27 January 2020  

We could compromise on May 27, the date of the 1967 referendum, as a 'starting point' for the living project (with no end in sight that resolves the whole project) that is the proper place of First Nations in Australia. After all, Christianity (another living project with no end in sight that resolves the whole project) has three starting points, Christmas Day, the Easter Triduum and Pentecost.

roy chen yee | 30 January 2020  

"the world is more complex.... We have the opportunity to share our existence in a less confrontational and more humane way. Belonging to each other and to the land." Yes, I agree with Pam. The indigenous peoples themselves admit they were not the first to arrive on this land; that they too were immigrants. Some of the elders have also said that changing the date of Australia Day makes no difference at all to anyone. Regarding the fires the indigenous peoples have been warning for a hundred years that the new arrivals are "doing it all wrong" - that they should be regularly physically clearing/carefully burning small sections of the thick "fuel-load" on the ground - to prevent the intensity of the bushfires that we have seen lately. Yet the Greens - to whom many Local Councils appear to be beholden - have a "superior ideology" that prevents what the wisdom of the elder indigeneous peoples advise. The Greens are not friends of any of us, particularly not friends of the native animals that have now perished and the livelihoods of so many people so unnecessarily destroyed.

Mark | 01 February 2020  

Similar Articles

This is not about the fires

  • Neve Mahoney
  • 22 January 2020

My dog I've had for 14 years dies, and I decide to spend two days in bed. I look online and see that more than a billion Australian animals have died in the fires. Guilt spirals on top of guilt. How gauche, to feel this private grief, when there is such public grief already.


A royal commission for the land

  • Kate Galloway
  • 19 January 2020

For our society to function responsively to what is now a dynamically changing context, we urgently need differently oriented governance. This will, no doubt, be unpalatable for some — both in government and in the general public. But without re-setting how we are governed, our land and our society will suffer further destruction.