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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.