Can Australia Day be reshaped?

 If I ever dared criticise Australia – or the Australian government – I would be on the receiving end of an angry lecture from my refugee parents. It was OK for them to be (slightly) critical of the more relaxed Australian way of life. But not for me.

To my parents, Australia was golden.

Stan Grant delivers his speech at the  IQ2 racism debate.
Stan Grant delivers his speech at the IQ2 racism debate.  Photo: Supplied

It was the only country which would take two Jews and their jaundiced baby girl from what was then called a displaced person's camp. We call them refugee camps now. And when they arrived here in 1951, they came by boat, after nearly six years in the limbo of refugee life, their gratitude was glorious.

I've written about this before – about the way being accepted as a refugee has an enormous impact on the way you view your new country. I was the first in my family to be born in Australia and to my parents, that was a very big deal. I was the lucky one. Took them then another five years to feel it really was safe enough to have a third kid (hello, darling brother).

I am first generation. When I say that now, despite my years of privilege, I still get goosebumps. I have inherited gratitude. People in Australia were and are sometimes vile about Jews but they don't betray them to the authorities. They don't shoot them in the back of the head. This is not to forgive anti-semitism in any respect, because it is at the heart of genocide; but genocide only exists in Australia for one group of people; and it isn't Jews.

Of course, like most of us, I abandoned some aspects of the values of my parents and grew out of hiding my displeasure at the government, even though I know that both my parents would be appalled at my critique of governments past and present. The gratitude should outweigh the analysis. I wonder if my parents would have come around to my way of thinking if they knew how the Australian government treats refugees now.


Australia Day was huge in my family. My parents worked 11 days a week but Australia Day was a serious celebration. We'd go to Nielsen Park in Sydney's Vaucluse and swim. Or what passed for swimming in my family, breaststroke without putting your face in the water (it is with some pride that my offspring can all swim freestyle and breathe on both sides. Pride and amazement. How do people actually put their faces in water and live?)

So in 1988, when I was pregnant with my second child, I'd planned January 26 events very carefully. Watch boats. Have picnics. Watch Aboriginal dancing. See fireworks. Be extremely grateful. I was. Two years later, we organised a holiday up on the far north coast with another family. The topic of Australia Day came up and they were hugely critical. I burst into tears.

Of course, they were right. And wrong. And I was right and so wrong.

Nearly 30 years ago, when I had that fight with my friends Robin and Neil, Australia Day was still acceptable and it's become less acceptable now. For me, then, it was a time to celebrate being in country which didn't kill me or reject me or exclude me in a systematic way. But it marks the day when the colonisers of Australia began to kill, reject and exclude the Aboriginal people. Or, as Stan Grant put it when describing how the brilliant Swan Adam Goodes was treated last year: "I can tell you what we heard when we heard those boos, we heard a sound that was very familiar to us . . . we heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream and it said to us again, you're not welcome."

I doubt there could ever be a day when Aboriginal people could or would celebrate the colonisation of this land or the formation of this nation nor should we ever question the motives of anyone who doesn't want to take part in a joyless jamboree. Australia Day is connected to the destruction of another culture, this country's first people, although we must acknowledge that every day, the life expectancy, the education, the health, gap between Aboriginal and whites continues to exist.

As Grant says later in his speech at the IQ2 racism debate last year: "My people die young in this country, we die 10 years younger than average Australians and we are far from free."

If we move Australia Day, it allows a bunch of martyr rightists to claim Aboriginal activists won. If we don't move Australia Day, we ignore the destruction of the Aboriginal people.

But we could change Australia Day, make it a time when we can account for ourselves and our progress. January 26 will always be a day of mourning and it could also be a time when we examine the state of the nation and all who live here.

It will also make it possible for those of us who were given shelter here to give thanks for that shelter.

A friend wrote to me to say he's had enough of being a continuing unwilling protagonist in the war against Australia's Indigenous people. Me too. We have become unwilling parties to the war on Aborigines.

Could Australia Day be reshaped, away from drunkenness and celebrations, towards acknowledgement, reconciliation and peace?

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