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White defensiveness in Morrison's Cook gaffe

  • 24 January 2019


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.

Gold 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