When to cel­e­brate our na­tional day, and why

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Our no­tion of Aus­tralia Day has never been far from con­tro­versy – con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions to­day are pos­si­bly the clos­est they’ve ever been to recog­nis­ing Aus­tralia’s full his­tory. Charles Sturt Uni­ver­sity’s School of Indige­nous Aus­tralian Stud­ies head, As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Jay Phillips, spoke to YVETTE AUBUSSON-FO­LEY about why the idea of a date change is so con­fronting. What’s your view on the dis­cus­sion around chang­ing the date of Aus­tralia Day?

For me as an Abo­rig­i­nal per­son, what has an ef­fect on me is not the date not chang­ing, but the re­sis­tance to the con­ver­sa­tion around chang­ing the date of In­va­sion Day.

I think there are two main rea­sons for that.

One rea­son speaks to the at­tach­ment peo­ple have to the Aus­tralian flag and that par­tic­u­lar date. The as­sump­tion un­der­neath it is that the date has been “our cel­e­bra­tion day” since time be­gan and to equate Aus­tralia Day/set­tle­ment with 1788.

Peo­ple who re­sist dis­cus­sion use that as their plat­form. How­ever, the fact is that Aus­tralia Day, the date it­self, has changed over and over.

It’s been a govern­ment de­ci­sion that’s not con­nected to all those tra­di­tions and which pa­tri­otic Aus­tralians claim is the whole story.

That leads then to the sec­ond main is­sue, in that peo­ple don’t know their Aus­tralian his­tory. I’m not say­ing Indige­nous his­tory, I’m say­ing Aus­tralian his­tory.

Those sto­ries have been kept, they’re in mu­se­ums, they’re in our his­tory books, the orig­i­nal doc­u­ments... (But) peo­ple don’t read those doc­u­ments to get a true ac­count of his­tory, they just lis­ten to those who put forth cer­tain sec­tions or se­lec­tions from our his­tory, to re­pro­duce and re­in­force this idea of who we are as Aus­tralians.

So do you think fac­ing facts or truth is es­sen­tially too con­fronting?

Those two things to­gether, they’re both faulty, they’re both pre­sump­tu­ous, but they’re so pow­er­ful in mo­bil­is­ing peo­ple to re­sist the con­ver­sa­tions that can hap­pen around why (we cel­e­brate the day when we do).

You see them on Face­book. The ab­sence of that in­for­ma­tion, that knowl­edge and those facts mean that noth­ing that is said from the other side will pen­e­trate as well as it would if the pa­tri­otic Aus­tralians had that knowl­edge, be­cause that is where the use­ful dis­cus­sion is; en­gaged on facts and mu­tual re­spect.

I think the lack of un­der­stand­ing by a vast pro­por­tion of the Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion means that the re­spect is not forth­com­ing, be­cause they feel they’re in pos­ses­sion of all of the facts.

Is that con­fronting?

It is highly con­fronting. The teach­ing I’ve been do­ing is about fill­ing in the gaps and get­ting stu­dents – Indige­nous and non-indige­nous stu­dents – to un­der­stand the lim­i­ta­tions of their knowl­edge.

It is very con­fronting for peo­ple to say “I never knew this, I wasn’t taught this in school”, and that’s in an ed­u­ca­tional con­text, where peo­ple are held cap­tive, if you like, to con­tinue to the next step, to go past that dis­com­fort.

Out­side, in the so­cial me­dia space, in the cul­tural space; there’s no such re­quire­ment, so there’s shots fired.

With­out know­ing the rea­sons, peo­ple re­sist con­ver­sa­tions about chang­ing the date. That’s also sig­nif­i­cant and crit­i­cal to mov­ing the con­ver­sa­tion for­ward.

Does the coun­try need to be coun­selled through this?

Oh, yes. I’ve been teach­ing in this area for 20 years and part of the ap­proach I use is a lit­tle psy­cho­an­a­lytic. It’s when your stu­dents are set­tled on things; it’s like, where do you learn it, why do you know it, how do you know it’s true, where’s the ev­i­dence, what’s the lim­i­ta­tion; but that’s an ex­tremely com­pli­cated and long process.

Is the dis­cus­sion chang­ing?

It is chang­ing. The pro­gres­sion of the ar­gu­ment around Aus­tralia Day is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing but we tend not to see it in the me­dia, be­cause it’s sound bites. In terms of my ex­pe­ri­ence just at a so­cial level, maybe it’s peo­ple I as­so­ciate with, there are non-indige­nous peo­ple who are very strong in their re­solve to not cel­e­brate, but also, which is more im­por­tant, have the rea­sons for why they won’t.

What role does the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem play?

The cur­ricu­lum that peo­ple choose is very lim­ited and it’s about Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple rather than with Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple.

For ex­am­ple, con­tent around Mabo would re­quire far more skill from the teacher in han­dling con­flict in un­der­stand­ing his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary is­sues, in or­der to guide stu­dents through, and to be quite strong, and not get car­ried away in feel­ing, be­cause it’s sup­posed to be an in­tel­lec­tual ac­tiv­ity.

Peo­ple can’t feel im­pli­cated if they’re just a tourist or an ob­server of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple’s cus­toms, tra­di­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences, and that leads into pop­u­lar dis­courses.

Peo­ple see­ing that as the only way is a mis­take, and an er­ror in judge­ment. It’s sim­i­lar to what hap­pens in the In­va­sion Day con­ver­sa­tion, peo­ple will shut down if some­thing makes them too un­com­fort­able.

It’s eas­ier to be­lieve the myth than it is to ac­tu­ally take the steps to find out the in­for­ma­tion, be­cause feel­ing dis­com­forted is a step to­wards un­der­stand­ing and feel­ing com­fort­able again. It’s not the whole story but it’s def­i­nitely a bar­rier.

As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Jay Phillips

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