Australia Day: achievement or invasion?

Australia Day is celebrated on the 26th January. Jim Mulroney SSC is an Australian Columban Missionary and questions whether 26th January would be better marked as what it really is; the day the oldest living culture in the world suffered a devastating invasion.

On January 1st, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced a change to the official national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. After a long deliberation over the age of the nation, a line that formerly read, “for we are young and free,” has been altered to read, in a melodic sense of course, “for we are one and free.”

Plaudits for the tweak mostly centred on the removal of the word young, as it is difficult to apply it to a continent that hosts the oldest living culture in the world. The announcement came with a fair degree of unmuted triumph and brickbats flew at the inclusion of the word one as an adequate description of relations between Australia’s First Peoples and descendants of the invading stock. While the tweak could be considered aspirational, which has a place in a national anthem, what should also be reflected is lived experience. Aspiration may excuse the inclusion of the word one, but lived experience cannot.

The tweaked version received its first widespread airing at the New Year cricket test match against India on the Sydney Cricket Ground and but for the fuss stirred by the prime ministerial announcement may have passed without notice, as large swathes of the population have trouble remembering the words in the first place.

However, its first big official use will come on Australia Day, which is marked nationally on 26th January with a public holiday. Official ceremonies include the announcement of the Australian of the Year, as well as honours for many others, citizenship ceremonies for new-comers and, most controversially, a remembrance of the First Fleet raising the British flag and taking possession of the east coast of the continent in 1788. Unofficially, and more commonly, it is marked with sporting contests, beach parties, barbecues, family gatherings and the end of the unofficial summer holiday period.

Advance Australia Fair was composed by Peter Dodds McCormick in 1878. It strongly reflected the staunch nature of white Australia as British, while carrying the warning that it just may not be quite as British as the Colonial Office in London may have liked to think. While the words had undergone many changes by the time the song was adopted as the national anthem in 1984, the fundamental theme extolling the invading stock at the expense of the vanquished First Peoples had not been expunged.

Neither the anthem nor the celebration of Australia Day have ever been tightly embraced and, to this day, both remain controversial. Unofficially and historically, it has been referred to as Anniversary Day or Foundation Day, as well as Australian Natives Association Day in recognition of the political clout of locally born white men seeking to establish their equality with their imported peers. It was a significant group. It lobbied hard for a federation of the states into a commonwealth and spawned early prime ministers and state premiers that had honed their political craft from within its ranks.

A formalised national celebration of 26th January was only introduced in 1935. Old Newsreel footage survives of the first ceremony held on the shore of Botany Bay where the land had been usurped in the British name 147 years previously. It shows groups of Aboriginal people armed with spears showing defiance, before retreating hastily in the face of British muskets. Historical studies reveal that the First People took part with great reluctance, being cajoled, bullied, threatened and bribed. To them, it was a glorification of what has come to be widely referred to as Survival Day or Invasion Day.

The name is apt. The British took possession not only of the land, but also the First Peoples. Tens of thousands were slaughtered by hunting parties clearing the land for cattle or sheep, while women and children were mustered into compounds in an attempt to cleanse them of their language, culture, values and way of life in order to become useful servants of colonial rule.

It was a devastating blow to a culture that had prospered for tens of thousands of years. It was a devastating blow to the people denied their way of life and right to use the ancient land bequeathed to them by time. It is a blow that is still being struck by a government that refuses to allow an indigenous voice in the parliament and the process of governance.

Today there is a much wider recognition of the injustice done and white Australians will stand alongside their indigenous brothers and sisters in front of parliaments and government offices in silent demand for recognition. However, achieving a widespread paradigm shift in attitude is a huge task.

Mainstream media tries hard, both abetted and resisted by their social media cousins. The Churches make statements, unfortunately read by few and appreciated by less. Doubtlessly, its schools provide the main push through education of the young and experiential programmes.

Ultimately, as described by former prime minister, Paul Keating, there has been a widespread failure on behalf of mainstream Australia to appreciate how it would have felt if subjected to such treatment.

Australia bears much shame and needs to return to its past to repair the damage done in order to heal its present. It has also achieved much that deserves to be celebrated, but the critical question as to whether or not 26th January is the appropriate date remains.

The federated Commonwealth of Australia was born on 1 January 1901. It would seem a more appropriate date to celebrate achievement, leaving 26 January better marked as what it really is; the day the oldest living culture in the world suffered a devastating invasion.