USEFUL OCCASION: Peter Garrett, pictured at Noosa, is one of many prominent Australians who have used Australia Day to promote Aboriginal concerns.
USEFUL OCCASION: Peter Garrett, pictured at Noosa, is one of many prominent Australians who have used Australia Day to promote Aboriginal concerns. Geoff Potter

Aboriginal Australia and the January 26 debate

AUSTRALIA's attempts to reconcile Aboriginal disadvantage have always suffered unintended consequences.

The commemoration of Australia Day on January 26 is not a celebration for all Australians, but changing the date would I believe be a significant setback for Aboriginal issues.

Why? Simply because Australia Day, or Invasion Day if you will, has become a useful time of national reflection, which would not occur at any other time of year.

As well as promoting our liberal heritage, cultural diversity and origins, the national day increasingly confronts us with that inner sense of disquiet, which most decent non-Aboriginal Australians must feel about the dispossession, oppression and the ongoing cultural genocide of the Aboriginal people.

And none of those real issues of national shame are helped by changing the date.

Token gestures achieve nothing in the real world, even if they do provide an easy win for some activists and sooth the undeserving consciences of some others.

They are faster than thinking, easier than real change and allow us to derive status from broadcasting our virtuous intentions.

To use a common saying, virtue signalling is like wetting your pants. It gives a nice warm feeling but does not really achieve anything.

Gesture politics does not change anything in the real world about Aboriginal disadvantage.

On the contrary, Australia Day on January 26 has become a powerful magnet for a discussion we all need to have and which we would not be having with any real intensity, were it not for the fact that it is the the anniversary of the arrival of the settler-invaders of the First Fleet.

People are entitled to their opinions of course, but do the mostly white bureaucrats at the national broadcaster really think they are making a difference by playing JJJ's Hottest 100 countdown of favourite songs, on January 27 instead of January 26?

Similarly, I was amazed to hear an Aboriginal man say on television last month that he felt personally hurt by Australia Day being celebrated on January 26.

I mean no disrespect, but this sort of concern seems to me to grossly trivialise the real issues.

Does he really think January 26 is the big issue?

Real disadvantage, dispossession and cultural obliteration continue under our noses today.

White domination of Aboriginal land on Fraser Island, for example, continues under a tokenistic but essentially meaningless Mabo deal which does not actually give the Butchulla people much at all.

And so we continue to see the utter destruction by white law of Aboriginal relationships with the region's dingoes and dolphins.

Having run out of beads and mirrors, we now offer even cheaper currency.

One example is the increasing tendency by bureaucrats to call Fraser Island by its Aboriginal name, K'Gari, as a recently adopted token of feigned respect.

My point is that all these gestures are only of any value if someone up there means it. And they don't.

I suppose I feel strongly about this use of Australia Day to consider Aboriginal issues, because I may have helped get it started.

It was the early '80s and I was more or less the token left winger in a PR firm which assigned me to its Australia Day contract.

Small time subversive that I was, I slipped Aboriginal concerns - at that time still seen as a fringe lefty issue - into the publicity mix, via a press kit which included interviews with pro-Aboriginal Miles Franklin Award winner Xavier Herbert and Aboriginal writer and activist, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, whose poetry we studied at school under her Anglo name, Kath Walker.

Contrary to what many might expect, those allegedly stuffy old Anglophiles loved the idea and paid a fortune to have the press kit distributed to every news organisaiton in Queensland.

And it got a reasonably good run (which would not have been the case except for the history of January 26).

A few years later, Oodgeroo Noonuccal chose the 1988 Bicentennial Australia Day to return her MBE (awarded in 1970) as a protest at continuing Aboriginal disadvantage.

It was Australia Day on January 26 that gave her the platform.

A decade after that, Peter Garrett achieved widespread attention for Aboriginal issues in his widely reported Australia Day address to the New South Wales parliament.

He spoke of Australia's "original sin” and what he called "the savage war of occupation which culminated in the almost total destruction of a people... consigned to the margins” of the society which had taken their land.

He also quoted Xavier Herbert, who said we would remain "a people without a soul, not a nation, but a community of thieves,” until we gave back "what we have taken... without proviso or strings to snatch it back.”

We now take for granted Australia Day as the day of Aboriginal apocalypse, as well as the creation of a vibrant and amazingly successful nation.

Changing the date is tokenism. It achieves nothing.

And it threatens to take from Aboriginal people the one day of the year when the nation gives a toss for them.

Changing the date is easy.

Changing the reality of ongoing Aboriginal disadvantage is the hard part.

Gympie Times

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