OPIN­ION

WOULD CHANG­ING THE DATE FOR ABO­RIG­I­NAL IS­SUES

The Gympie Times - - FRONT PAGE - ARTHUR GOR­RIE Se­nior jour­nal­ist arthur.gor­rie@gympi­etimes.com

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 do 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 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 – then 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 or­gan­i­sa­tion 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 dates is easy. Chang­ing the re­al­ity of Abo­rig­i­nal dis­ad­van­tage is the hard part.

❝ We re­main a peo­ple with­out a soul, not a na­tion, but a com­mu­nity of thieves.

— Xavier Her­bert

PHOTO: GE­OFF POTTER

RIGHT TIME: Peter Garrett, pic­tured at Noosa, is one of many prom­i­nent Aus­tralians who have used Aus­tralia Day to pro­mote Abo­rig­i­nal con­cerns.

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