When to celebrate our national day, and why
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