Fireworks, eskies and reconciliation…

A didgeridoo player in Arnhem Land, 1981.
Image via Wikipedia

Our national day celebrations often generate discussion within our small congregation. Yesterday’s take on Jonah the Bogan was one attempt to address the tensions between celebrating national pride and accountability to something wider, bigger and deeper. One of our Elders, Steve Mellor, has granted permission to reprint his article from this week’s church newsletter:

On 26th January Australians will gather in capital cities and other regional centres around the country to celebrate Australia Day.  The day will be marked with official ceremonies, parties and elaborate fireworks displays.  The day will be a special occasion for many new Australians who will truly call Australia home by accepting the responsibilities that come with Australian Citizenship.  So let’s reflect on what this day actually means.

To call January 26th Australia Day is somewhat of a misnomer.  Ray Durbridge reminded us a few weeks ago that our real national day passes by largely unnoticed.  1st January 1901 is really when Australia came into being.  Whilst many Australians party and celebrate the establishment of a British penal colony on the shores of Sydney Harbour on 26th  January 1788, a substantial number of Australians remember the day with some sadness and find it offensive that such celebrations take place.  It was on that day that the great southern land was taken away from a people who had lived here continuously for around 100,000 years.  For them, the 26th January 1788 marks the day of invasion.

There is a real sense in which we, as Australians, should be proud of our heritage and of the nation we have become – a nation which acknowledges the rights and privileges of all its citizens and one which, I feel , leads the world in expressing and respecting the rights and dignity of all people.  We are a nation which honours and respects both the importance of the individual and the value of community, though I have been somewhat dismayed at recent debate concerning the coming of persecuted people to our shores, particularly those of non-Christian background.  Many risk their lives to come here and that says a great deal about who we are as a nation.  Our reputation is largely built on the perceived good life available to most.  Sadly though, the original indigenous inhabitants of this land have not enjoyed the same fruits of prosperity.

Historically, whilst the states came together in a spirit of goodwill and cooperation to form the nation of Australia, prior to Federation systematic occupation of an already occupied land saw much loss of indigenous life, culture and heritage, as well as the expanding colonies’ environmental impact.  Events subsequent to Federation saw attempts to completely eradicate the ‘blacks’ through removal of children from their parents and the further taking of previously occupied land.  The original inhabitants were considered to be non-people, only being given the rights of citizenship in 1967.  44 years later indigenous people still struggle for recognition, respect and opportunity to truly enjoy life as part of ‘one Australia’.  So, for me, this is not a cause for celebration, but rather it should be the catalyst for further listening and reflection.  Pride in the steps we have taken in recent times, particularly in the area of reconciliation, should be tempered with a liberal dose of humility, acknowledging the mistakes that have been made and recognising the difficulty of the road ahead but also recognising that the diverse indigenous culture is as rich a part of the common wealth of this nation as any resource.  If we choose to listen, there is much we can learn.

Respect for the indigenous people of this country has led me to not celebrate Australia Day and I would be happy to see it removed from the nation’s calendar.  However, I am proud to be a member of a church having an on-going commitment to reconciliation and am encouraged by our desire to show respect for the First Australians through the implementation of a Reconciliation Action Plan.  Approaching another Australia Day, let’s reflect on the great cost of our nationhood to our indigenous brothers and sisters.  While honouring and celebrating our Australianness, let’s also acknowledge and reflect on the history that accompanies that and how we might participate in positive acts of reconciliation.


Published by wonderingpilgrim

Not really retired but reshaped and reshaping. Now a pilgrim at large ready to engage with what each day brings.

8 thoughts on “Fireworks, eskies and reconciliation…

  1. Hi Steve, this is Sylvia, Rudi’s other half; (just happened to drop in on his login to catch up on our son and to save time and because I’ve closed my facebook account but I know Rudi won’t mind).
    I can’t resist asking if you would you object to me copying and pasting your article to a friend via email?


  2. 26 January is not a day that ONLY Native Australians have monopoly to dislike, some of my ancestors also arrived as guests of the British Government of the time in chains ! The French colonised North Africa and made my Moorish ancestors second class citizens.
    For 400 years the English persecuted the Irish side of my family.

    Am I bitter hell no!, do I blame the English of today for past deeds, no way!

    I say get over it, I will not feel in the least guilty celebrating Australia Day
    We can`t move on in unity while dirty linen from 100s of years ago is trotted out time and time again
    I am – you are- we are AUSTRALIAN!


  3. Mike, great that you’re over it. So am I. This puts us in a receptive place of listening to those who aren’t quite there yet, who are still weighed down by the legacy of wearing the dirty linen of relatively recent times. Much has improved – but there’s still a way to go. Let’s celebrate the will to achieve this.


  4. Mike, I am intrigued by your comment that indicates I feel we today are responsible for the That’s not what I’m saying and I’m not sure how you can read that in to my article. One of my points is ‘why can’t we find a common day on which we can all celebrate the uniqueness of Australia and Australians in the world and celebrate the richness and diversity of our culture and heritage, including indigenous culture and heritage?’ To me it would be like having an Australia-wide in-your-face party on Anzac Day. I wasn’t at Galipoli; as far as I know none of my relatives were. But would I ever show disrespect for the families of those who still remember our fallen soldiers on that day? Never! Why do we treat indigenous Australians any differently?


  5. Steve, I understand that some indigenous people are uneasy about 26 January as a date to celebrate Australia and refer to that day emotively as ”invasion day”. but we must remember that that was indeed the day that ”modern” Australia commenced.To make parallel between Galipoli and the day the first fleet arrived, is I think, drawing a very long bow.If we were to choose an alternative date that had some significance, what would that date be? I am sure whatever was chosen would upset some group or other. Reunification day in Germany for example, no doubt angers old Communists. My entire point was that we need to stop the ”blame game” and just get on being Australian without the division in our society..


  6. Mike – we are not blaming anyone. People who continually trot out the ‘I didn’t do it argument’ miss the whole point of reconcilliation. Mistakes were made and modern Australians have to acknowedge that. Hurt, pain, suffering and loss were inflicted. These need to be acknowledged and ways of moving forward found. It can’t just be swept under the carpet and have the dominant party say ‘let’s forget about it and move on’. That doesn’t achieve anything. It solves nothing. It merely keeps the conflict bubbling along under the surface. As Dennis says, there are other days, The day when modern Australia really came into being – January 1 – could be another possibility. The day when indigenous people were recognised as citizens could be another. Reunification Day btw is a day to be celebrated as it marks the coming together of peoples/families split by different ideals. It is a way of drwaing people together, not pusing them further apart. And even if we do celebrate Australia Day on January 26, it should include acknowledgement and reflection on the cost of our nationhood on a significant group of people who we say we want as part of our community, part of our nation.


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