Is it okay to celebrate an act of genocide? Is it reasonable to hold neighborhood parties on the day that genocide began — opening crates of beer, cranking up the barbecue and staging colorful fireworks displays?
That’s the question being asked by Australia’s indigenous people ahead of the country’s national day, which falls on Jan. 26. It’s the day the British sailed into Sydney Cove, claiming the country with the purpose of establishing a penal colony.
That first British settlement was the starting point of what — just maybe — is one of the world’s most inspiring stories. The detritus of Britain were discarded on an island 10,000 miles from home, yet they prospered. The soil proved more important than the seed.
Yet there was a cost, an enormous one, and it was paid by indigenous Australians. They had occupied the continent for at least 50,000 to 65,000 years. They remain the world’s oldest continuing civilization.
Some of the Eora nation, the group that occupied Sydney, were killed in skirmishes with the British troops. Others perished in battles with the freed convicts — people who had been given Aboriginal land and told they were free to farm. More were ravaged by smallpox and other European diseases. As the frontier moved slowly outward, the same story was replayed: the land seized, its owners repelled.
Aboriginal warriors, part of the Eora nation, had met the British ships when they first arrived, yet the invaders still managed to embrace a legal fiction: that the continent was unoccupied.
That view was maintained, by and large, for the next two centuries. Australia has never enjoyed a treaty of the sort signed between the British and the Maori in neighboring New Zealand. (Even the legal absurdity of terra nullius, nobody’s land, was fully discarded only as recently as 1992, with the High Court’s Mabo decision.)
Which brings us back to Australia Day. Both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, by and large, are happy to celebrate the Australia we’ve ended up with: this happily multicultural country in which, according to polling, the majority accept the special place of Aboriginal people.
The question: Do we have to choose Jan. 26 – “Invasion Day,” as many call it – for our national celebrations? The major political parties — Liberal, National and Labor — are all sticking with the date. Only the Greens have said it should change.
Outside Parliament, though, there’s been more dissent.
This week, the non-indigenous tennis champion Pat Cash — winner of Wimbledon in 1987 — said he would not be celebrating Australia Day, which he called “the day the British started butchering Aboriginal people.”
The youth-focused radio network Triple J has shifted one of its most successful traditions — a listener-voted, Australia Day countdown of the year’s “hottest 100” — declaring it unsuitable for a day of mourning.
And some local councils have declared they will no longer hold citizenship ceremonies on such a divisive day.
One indigenous activist, Michael Mansell, put it this way back in 2013: “Australia is the only country that relies on the arrival of Europeans on its shores as being so significant it should herald the official national day. The USA does not choose the arrival of Christopher Columbus as the date for its national day. Like many other countries its national day marks independence.”
Against all this, Australia’s prime minister has returned fire. Malcolm Turnbull this week posted a video on Facebook in which he acknowledged that European settlement had been “complex and tragic” for indigenous people, but he rejected calls to change the date of Australia Day.
“A free country debates its history,” he said. “It does not deny it. It builds new monuments as it preserves old ones, writes new books, not burns old ones.”
Does he have a point? Is it possible to turn Australia Day into a day of contemplation on which we mark indigenous survival alongside the successes of the European settlement?
However, Malcolm Turnbull has a problem: The current Australia Day is an easygoing summer celebration, more a barbecue in the sun than a somber consideration of history.
What if we changed the date? Could the existing Australia Day become a focus for far-right groups who believe that Australia’s multiculturalism has gone too far? Some opponents of change believe that exactly this will happen.
Others — including prominent indigenous leaders such as Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price — believe that the “change the date” movement is a sideshow and that Aboriginal people in remote communities have bigger issues to worry about.
Here’s what I think. For all of us who live here, indigenous and non-indigenous, Jan. 26 is the day everything changed. It’s the day the world learned that people from the London slums, spurned and disregarded, could blossom if given a little sunshine. And it was the day we learned that the world’s oldest civilization could, heroically, survive an invasion.
But if indigenous Australians don’t accept this argument, the date must change.
In the meantime, an experiment: Can Australians, amid the beer and the fireworks, truly contemplate the history, both bleak and inspiring, parceled up together by Jan. 26?
If we can do that, we really might have something to celebrate.