Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Something For Everyone On Australia Day

The selection of Professor Mick Dodson as Australian of the Year has come as no real surprise. For weeks there was speculation about the result having been possibly leaked, along with suggestions of some irregularities in the betting market. Betting was suspended on suspicion that someone already knew the outcome. But whether or not they did has nothing to do with the outcome itself.

In keeping with the spirit of last years formal apology to the stolen generations, and with the broader reconciliation agenda, the selection of Professor Dodson represents more than simply recognition of his achievements. It also represents recognition of the ideas, the issues, and the values for which he stands. As an effective campaigner for indigenous rights and social justice, he has won the respect of both his supporters and his opponents. His achievements are an inspiration for both black and white Australians.

However, some might take exception to his suggestion that perhaps we could celebrate Australia Day on a different date. From his point of view, as with many Indigenous Australians, January 26 is Invasion Day. It is the anniversary of the birth of Terra Nullius, the legal notion that prior to 1788 Australia was unoccupied; the principle of British Law which saw Aborigines legally treated as nothing more than wildlife. That legal fantasy might now be long gone, but its residue is not.

Obviously, mainstream Australia, that is to say the white dominated society, is unlikely to shift Australia Day, which after all has come to represent a lot more than simply the arrival of the First Fleet. It represents our celebration of our proudly independent character, our values of a fair go for all, looking after your mates, and defending our freedom. These are values that can be shared by all Australians of all ethnic backgrounds.

If reconciliation is to be truly successful, and if Indigenous Australians are to embrace a place in the modern community, there needs to be a way of getting past the whole issue of “Invasion Day”. To be blunt, some people need to “get over it.” It is a fact of history and cannot be changed. What we can change is how we deal with the situation now, and into the future. At some point, there will have to be a recognition that the end of isolation has been on balance a positive outcome for indigenous Australians.

Now that might be a big stretch for people still caught up in the historical realities of dispossession, disadvantage and discrimination. To the extent that those things still exist today, and they most certainly do, we have failed in our efforts at real reconciliation. To repair that shortcoming, the failures of the past must finally be left in the past, and the failings of the present must be addressed head on.

And while the practical actions are essential, the symbolic ones are important too. That’s why the apology was the right thing to do. That’s why a treaty is also worth considering seriously. And if that treaty were to be signed on the anniversary of the Invasion, wouldn’t that be both fitting and a means to alter forever the significance of January 26th for those who still see it as a dark day?

It may not solve all the problems of reconciliation, but it would at least give everybody something to celebrate on Australia Day.

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