White defensiveness in Morrison's Cook gaffe

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In 1851, little Thomas Maroney, then two years old, made the perilous sea-journey to Australia, nursed in the arms of his parents, James and Bridget. They were (most likely) fleeing the Great Famine in Ireland. Tipperary offered them only starvation and subjugation, and so they joined thousands of others making their way across the ocean seeking a better life.

Scott Morrison unveils a sign advertising Captain Cook's 'amazing circumnavigation recreation'. He declares 'We're not gong to change the date but we will rewrite history.' Cartoon by Fiona KatauskasGold was found in Beechworth less than a year later, and the family made its way to the northern Victorian gold-rush precinct, traditionally the home of the Min-jan-buttu people. In (White) Australian imagination, this was the time of the brave settlers building a new nation. Thomas Maroney was my great-great-grandfather.

The convict and settler population they joined was, at that time, over 430,000. In ten short years it would swell to over 1.1 million. Conversely, Indigenous peoples' numbers, estimated at anywhere between 300,000 to over a million before the First Fleet landed, had been dropping precipitously through massacres in the frontier wars, and introduced diseases. For them, European settlement had been a disaster of unheard proportions. Since time immemorial, their ancestors had been custodians of the land, and in the blink of an eye that custodianship was ripped away in the name of a distant British monarch.

But it is the victors who get to write history, and who are guardians of the nations' imaginative mythology: a story that must be constantly remembered and performed to ward off inconvenient facts of history or the challenge of new stories from new immigrants.

So it is that in early January there are the annual stirrings of protest against celebrating — as Australia's official National Day — the anniversary of the British colonialists' landing. Historically, commemoration of the date was rather haphazard, particularly outside New South Wales, until 1994 when it was officially established for all states and territories. In a parallel history, Invasion Day for Indigenous peoples is one of mourning, publicly since 1938 when their leaders gathered in Sydney for an official protest.

But there is no real recognition by our political leaders of the deep wounds that celebrating it as a national party causes for those whose belonging to the land extends back into the mists of ancient time. Instead, they brassily proclaim it to be a day of uniting Australians in our core values, in what can only be described as Orwellian doublespeak.

Thus, as the momentum to recognise the difficulty that 26 January poses to Indigenous peoples and their supporters increases, the guardians of the dominant mythology feel moved to tighten their grip on the received narrative: Australia Day must be celebrated and the moment of British conquest must be honoured.

 

"Morrison's boo-boo shows it's not really about connecting to Australian history, it's muscle-flexing on behalf of the story that the British brought civilisation to an undiscovered land."

 

So, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced 6.7 million precious tax dollars would be devoted to 're-enacting' Captain James Cook's circumnavigation of the Australian coastline; except that honour belongs to English explorer Matthew Flinders. Put aside, for a moment, that there are schools, hospitals, and Indigenous community organisations that could make a genuinely positive difference in Australian lives with that money instead of wasting it on a theme-park spectacle, Morrison's boo-boo shows it's not really about connecting to Australian history, it's muscle-flexing on behalf of the story that the British brought civilisation to an undiscovered land.

Morrison and his Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, David Coleman, also plan to force local councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on 26 January and impose a dress-code. This pettifogging requirement seemed to bemuse many, particularly because the ban was supposedly against beachwear. 'I'm a Prime Minister for standards,' Morrison said at first, but later backtracked after howls of protest in support of those quintessential items of Australian dress: thongs and board shorts. Yet it does not take much imagination to predict a day in the near future where 'standards' might be used against another stigmatised group — Muslim women who wear face-veils — as has been the case in Canada and parts of Europe.

What do Indigenous and Muslim Australians have in common? They are the foil against which normative White Australian identity is contrasted. The latest group to join them are African migrants, who have become the subject of a new campaign of fear. It is no surprise then, that we are seeing a troubling resurgence of right-wing, exclusionary nationalism. Images of angry Whites wrapped in Australian flags in front of Melbourne's iconic Luna Park mouth in January, rallying against immigrants, is shocking. But it is not new.

When Thomas Maroney's family arrived in Australia a century-and-a-half ago, they belonged to a similarly stigmatised and demonised minority: the Irish. Back then, the dominant ethnic group — the British settlers — painted the Irish Catholic minority as violent, rowdy drunkards, and potential traitors whose allegiance to a foreigner (the Pope) could not be trusted. But the received Australian mythology evolved over time to allow a place for the Irish in the founding of the nation-state, and because the stories we tell ourselves can change, one day there might be one that recognises and honours all of us. And it won't be celebrated on January 26.

 

 

Rachel WoodlockDr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.

Topic tags: Rachel Woodlock, Australia Day, Invasion Day

 

 

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Existing comments

Thanks Rachel. I could think of many better ways to spend 6.7 million dollars of taxpayers' money! I am also in favour of changing the date of Australia Day to a date suitable to our indigenous people.
Grant Allen | 24 January 2019


Thanks Rachel, Like your family, my ancestors two generations back came out from Ireland ,being 'transported from Cork for political reasons in one of the many uprisings against the English conquers of the land. I have now returned twice to trace my family history. It's a sorry story of persecution and deprivation. My forebears ended up cedar cutting in the Clarence Valley (NSW) till this valuable resource was exhausted>finally they settled in Western Victoria, growing potatoes! I certainly remember the "sectarism" as a school age child. WHAT AN ABSOLUTE WASTE OF MONEY for an historically incorrect project! Just like the 'white elephant' on the Western Front in France, these pollies do not learn! Best to ignore Australia Day , the whole ritual gives me the creeps!
Gavin O'Brien | 25 January 2019


Brilliantly written, thank you Dr Woodlock. You help us re-imagine Australia's true history and remind us of the courageous resistance and rightful claims of Aboriginal Australians. Among other things, this article puts a strong case for celebrating Australia Day on a different date.
Thea Ormerod | 25 January 2019


Is this fella Morrison who claims to be a ‘PM for Standards’ and wants to impose a dress code the same fella that was behind the ‘where the bloody hell are you’ tourism program and who gets around in a baseball cap eating junk food ?
Ginger Meggs | 25 January 2019


Assimilation of new immigrants here in Australia is a process of attrition of social customs and behaviours over time whereby the core beliefs of society are subtly changed and an updated national identity occurs. Of course there is rejection, discrimination and pain and suffering for all during the process but the question should be asked by our politicians " is Australia a better place for doing so?". Many Australians that clasp at their British heritage, don't think so!.
Nancy Gobchock | 25 January 2019


Thats an emotive article Rachel and you are right to point out the waste of money on a show of pride to celebrate a British invasion. My ancestry is half Scots and half Irish so have no love for the monarchy that enslaved Ireland and conquered Scotland. James 5th hanged 36 of my ancestors. And the way the British view the Irish even today is a disgrace. Im not sure about the Muslim Aboriginal comparison and agree that the Sudanese are excluded from the workforce and are currently a convenient scapegoat to whip up a frenzy in the far right. Scomo may get egg on his face if the Endeavour runs aground on the voyage and someone puts a spear through him. That is if he were brave enough to take the voyage. But he'll probably be blithering in front of the cameras on the bridge hogging the limelight as usual.
francis Armstrong | 25 January 2019


As you say, Rachel, "that honour belonged to Matthew Flinders". It seems to me the voyage of Flinders in the Investigator would be one to commemorate with some kind of re-enactment. It involved a stopover in Timor, a neighbour with whom we still have fences to mend.
Bill Venables | 25 January 2019


I think that we need new Australian government at all levels that will avoid preoccupation with its own survival, and a new Australian populace that will bravely refuse to be led into being mean-spirited and ready to blame. I am encouraged by Christopher Fry's poem, A sleep of prisoners. "Affairs are now soul size. The enterprise is exploration into God, where no nation’s foot has ever trodden yet. Where are you making for? It takes so many thousand years to wake, But will you wake for pity’s sake?
Alex Nelson | 25 January 2019


Many thanks Rachel. On the mark as usual. In a desperate attempt to stay in government the prime minister aims explicitly at division in the nation. And we might yet reap the rewards of this action.
Tom Kingston | 25 January 2019


I belong to a Catholic parish of good, accepting and truly Christian people, of whom mainly the older generation attend Mass. We all happily accept the Ugandan born, the Chinese born, the Bietnamese born as Catholics. We refer to them as African-Australians, Chinese Australians, Vietnamese Australians. We are Australians. They are something else. We aren't all or even mostly Anglo-Celts. The basis of division isn't ethnicity. It's colour. We whites are the true Australians. It's perfectly unconscious, but it's there, and I believe this unacknowledged belief is what leads to the passion with which European Australians cling to January 26 as our holy day.
Joan Seymour | 25 January 2019


Lorna had a story from her granny about Captain Cook coming to Coopers Creek. Wrong history, like the Prime Minister. But Lorna spent a lot of her valuable time working to save her priceless language from going extinct. When the day of judgment comes, which of them will have done more for Australia?
Gavan | 25 January 2019


Thank you for such an honest review.
Bernie | 26 January 2019


There is quite a vigorous debate on about Australia Day and what it means to be Australian, Rachel. I am not sure that there is any consensus as to which way, if any, we can all agree to move together. Many people are wedded to their version of History and won't give an inch. It was significant to me that a representative of the Islamic Council of Victoria, when asked why they did not mount a counter to the recent poorly attended far-right rally at St Kilda Beach, said that these people were a small extremist minority and the ICV did not want to give them any credence. Most Muslims in Australia, like most recent Sudanese arrivals, would, I think, want to be part of the mainstream, as did most of the Catholic Irish in the early days, who faced the same sort of discrimination here as they did under the Ascendancy. It would be lovely to be able to wave a magic wand and make it all OK immediately, but it will take time, effort and resources. At least the conversation has begun. It needs to be courteous and serious and to be conducted in more than sound bytes. Our politicians need to realize that, as do the opinionati and commentariat.
Edward Fido | 30 January 2019


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