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Cowardly History: Australia Day And Invasion


It’s the sort of stuff that should have been sorted
years ago in Australia: a murderous, frontier society ill
disposed to the indigenous populace; the creation of a
convict colony that was itself an act of invasion rather
than settlement; the theft of land and its rapacious
plunder.

Even some of the rough colonists were not
oblivious to such a crude record. Henry Parkes, in planning
the Centenary celebrations as New South Wales premier in
1888, was
asked
by a fellow politician what he would be doing for
the poor and needy for the occasion. Wealthy landed citizens
had been promised a banquet of much quaffing and gorging. As
a gesture, Parkes considered the distribution of food
parcels. “Then we ought to do something for the
Aborigines,” came the response. The answer from the
premier was coldly revealing: “And remind them that we
have robbed them?”

But the use of such language is
frowned upon by flag waving brigades advocating uplift and
encouragement, those who can only ever babble about the
exceptional country, the remarkable social experiment, the
wonders of a Britannic transplant that found itself at the
other side of the earth.

Generally speaking, Australia
Day is not exactly one of patriotic feverishness. As the BBC
describes
it, Australians tend to mark the occasion more as “a late
summer festival than a solemn national day its founders
intended it to be”. The more serious ones find time to
acknowledge such words as “a fair go” and
“mateship”, along with “democracy” and
“freedom”.

For the most part the date is a
scribble on the calendar, commemorating January 26, 1788
when Captain Arthur Phillip took formal possession of the
land that would become the colony of New South Wales. The
British flag was raised in Sydney Cove, if only because
sources of fresh water had been identified. The actual date
of the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay was a week
prior. And so, deceptions are born and lies
established.

By 1935, January 26 came to be known as
Australia Day in all states bar New South Wales, which
preferred the even duller appellation of “Anniversary
Day”. Three years later, various Indigenous groups sought
a different title: January 26 would be known as a Day of
Mourning and Protest. Victorian Aboriginal activist William
Cooper saw little reason to dissemble: the day the British
arrived was a memorial to the death of the Aboriginal
people.

In recent years, the casualness has come off
the gloss of the occasion. There have been campaigns
launched to Save Australia Day, spearheaded by Mark Latham,
former federal Labor opposition leader and now stable mate
of right wing commenters in the country. In 2018, Latham’s
effort
involved television, radio and social media advertisements
fearful of an Orwellian future of censorship. “In an
environment where you have so much political correctness,
where certain words, themes and values are banned in public
institutions, I think the Big Brother approach, that
dystopian theme, is very appropriate.”

Latham’s
sentiment here that a history focused on the grim and the
brutal is not constructive, being merely conducive to morbid
reflection. “A lot of terrible things happened in the 19th
and 20th centuries, no one’s wiping that history away, but
we can’t rewrite that history.” Nor speak of it, it
would seem.

The national broadcaster, the Australian
Broadcasting Corporation, has also found itself thickly
involved in such disputes of title, despite pretending not
to be. In attempting to keep an open church on terminology,
the organisation has managed to aggravate all concerned. As
the network says in
a statement
, “Australia Day” is the “default
terminology” used. “We also recognise and respect that
community members use other terms for the event, including
‘26 January’, ‘Invasion Day’ and ‘Survival Day’,
so our reporting and coverage reflect that.”

Prior
to this year’s coverage of Australia Day events, the ABC
felt the need to
clarify its position
after suggesting that the terms
were flexible and elastic in their deployment. “Given the
variety of terms in use, and the different perspectives on
the day that the ABC is going to cover over the course of
the long weekend, it would be inappropriate to mandate staff
use any one term over others in all contexts.”

That
need for clarification was driven by criticisms over an
article published by the network originally
titled
“Australia Day/Invasion Day 2021 events for
Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide,
Hobart and Darwin.” This was less
than pleasing
to the Communications Minister Paul
Fletcher, who represents a conservative government already
cranky with various news reports from the organisation. The
ABC had “clearly got this one wrong” in referencing both
terms for the day and presuming them to be interchangeable.
“The name of Australia Day is reflected in legislation
across Australia. More important, it is reflected in the
usage of the overwhelming majority of
Australia.”

The pro-market, libertarian Institute of
Public Affairs was also livid, and had some advice for Prime
Minister Scott Morrison. The government, suggested
IPA communications director Evan Mulholland, could “refuse
to fund a public broadcaster that doesn’t respect
Australian values.” In a sour mood to deceive, Mulholland
also toyed with a moral argument. “If Australia was
invaded, not settled then native title ceases to exist. Does
the ABC support the abolition of native
title?”

Showing a distinct lack of backbone, the
broadcaster, despite Fletcher insisting that it retained
“editorial independence” proceeded to amend
the headline
. “Australia Day is a contentious day for
many. Here are the events being held on January 26”. A
minor triumph for cowardice over substance.

Dr.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College,
Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:
bkampmark@gmail.com

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