Australia Day confusion

Australia Day post  – a day late. I couldn’t access the internet yesterday. Frustrating.

Australia Day perplexes me. What could be a joyous response is clouded by difficult issues. I’m a traditional Australian, to my core. But Australia Day does not fill me with unmitigated delight.

Australia Day, 2016

Australia Day

My maternal great-grandparents arrived in Western Australia in the mid-18th century. Immigrants from Ireland, they settled in Greenough in the mid-west of this state. Their allotment was ten acres of land on the river flats. They and their children subsisted. They became part of the community. My paternal grandparents settled in Perth from Ireland and England in the 1880s and early 1900s.

My siblings and I are thus fourth generation Australians. My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren constitute seven generations.

Generations four, five, six and seven sharing a kitchen

Generations four, five, six and seven sharing a kitchen

During my childhood, many men went to fight in ‘the War’ (World War II). The women stayed home and took responsibility for children, homes and jobs that absent men had left. The women sang patriotic songs around their pianos and dinner tables. They taught the children about the bravery of men who went to fight for our country.

We  kids learned about patriotism. About how wonderful our country was. How worth fighting for.

Hold on! On whose behalf did Australian men (and some women especially nurses) go to war? Great Britain’s.

While our mothers were also brave and upbeat, there was another, shadow side. Dog Swamp was short walk from our house on the edge of the bush in North Perth. A rough bush camp on the side of the swamp housed dispossessed Aboriginal people.

My mother and our neighbours were afraid of these poor folk who sometimes wandered into our street. She taught me to be afraid. But no one spoke openly about them. No one discussed the horrors that were perpetrated against the Original Inhabitants of this country.

School history books ignored Aboriginal people and their history. Instead, we learned Dorothea McKellar’s rousing poem, My CountryWe recited it with gusto. It became embedded in our psyches. No thought about whose land Australia might once have been.

Australia Day celebrates the arrival of the first fleet of  eleven convict ships from Great Britain. The Union Jack flag was raised at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. The powers-in-charge discounted the people who lived on the new continent. They said it was terra nullius, empty land. Their arrival was the beginning of the end of traditional life for the Aboriginal people who were displaced.

Map of language groups in Australia before white settlement

Map of language groups in Australia before white settlement

The statistics about Aboriginal health, welfare and incarceration could be the subject of another post.  I lived and worked on the Aboriginal community in Jigalong in the 1990s. English was the third or fourth language for the people among whom I. My book, Other People’s Country describes a little of the downside of life for Aboriginal people. Of course there are also stories of triumph..

For most of my life, Australia has welcomed settlers from other countries. But lately that has changed. Now to my horror and that of many other Australians, asylum-seekers arriving by boat are incarcerated in off-shore detention camps. Shame, shame, shame.

This is a country where diversity is not usually acknowledged and celebrated. Women are still less equal than men. Last year, seventy-eight women died as a result of violence, most of it perpetrated by partners or ex-partners.

Wide brown land

Wide brown land

In spite of its shortcomings, I love Australia with a passion. I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I love the bush and the desert. I’ve lived in both. I love the cities. The beach,  not so much. I am grateful for the opportunities that have come my way as an Australian and for the opportunities my children have taken advantage of. I love the lifestyle.

I am loyal, patriotic. But I pray and hope that in this democracy, some things will soon different.

To commemorate Australia Day, I went to a con-celebrated parish Mass. Both priests in our parish are from other countries. English is not their first language. We gave thanks for this amazing country and its people. We prayed for those who live who live here, especially those who live on the margins. We sang the National Anthem. It was a fitting celebration.

If your take on of Australia Day is different from mine, I’d love to read your ideas in the comments.

 

4 thoughts on “Australia Day confusion

  1. So you are conflicted?? I have always been so and it would take more room to explain myself!! I am glad you have raised the points you have. RosieXX

    • Yes, I’ve always been conflicted, too. Hard issues that this country has to face. As I said, I am ever hopeful that a democracy like ours will one day be mature enough to really tackle the hard stuff. Meanwhile, all we can do is make our little noise. One day it will add up to the groundswell like the one about domestic violence from good women (and men) that propelled Rosie Battie into the position of Australian of the Year 2015. Without the groundswell, we will achieve nothing.

  2. I feel exactly the same, Maureen, and I wish many things hadn’t happened in history. I can’t imagine if there’d been no Terra Nullius and if the British had respectfully built up relationships with indigenous people over time, but still considered it their land.

    We need to start heeding what our indigenous people are saying, and what they want for Australia Day. Surely it’s not too hard to change the date—at least that would be a start.

    • Hi, Louisa, Thanks for your comment. I knew from your blog post a week or so ago that you and I shared similar views about Australia Day. History can’t be undone, but perhaps we can stop writing tragic history for the future. We do need to start listening to the things Aboriginal people are telling us about all manner of areas in their lives. When I left my job as community nurse at Jigalong, for example, I knew that what I was doing as part of the Health Department was continuing the institutional paternalism that had been practised since the Jigalong Mission days. There was no understanding on the part of my bosses about the kind of holistic health care that could be provided if we listened to the people in the community.

      I’m all for a change of date for Australia Day to one that is less confronting to Aboriginal people.

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