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Australia Day as a day for humility

  • 21 January 2020


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.

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