Finding truth in Australia Day

A“Day of Mourning” held in the early part of last century. Leaflets warned that: “aborigines and persons of Aboriginal blood only are invited to attend.”

A“Day of Mourning” held in the early part of last century. Leaflets warned that: “aborigines and persons of Aboriginal blood only are invited to attend.”

The deepest thinking we do is metaphorical. What someone means is more important than simply what they say; and our understanding of any account depends on being able to interpret the significance of the words from one context to another.

We learn to navigate the literal meaning of words and their symbolic weight so that we can grasp the whole story beyond an accumulation of facts.  Thinking metaphorically means being able to hold the facts and their deeper implications together; it also means being able to see how one narrative connects with, or does not fit with, another.

This is common sense and it is also at the heart of academic work, not only in literature, music, and theology, but also in psychology, physics, and history. Reading symbols accurately and carefully is core business.

Australia Day has become a key symbol in our context. It tells a story of politics and history, and potentially the day also speaks to us theologically. Twenty years ago, 26 January became a national public holiday. The annual events are now the biggest civic occasions across the country.

From citizenship ceremonies to local fireworks and addresses by political leaders, these public occasions aim to raise awareness of the extraordinary resources we share, to honour the contributions of admirable Australians and to build a sense of community.
But the date has multiple associations and its celebration has long been controversial.

A survey in 2006 found approximately 23 per cent of Year 10 students identify 26 January 1788 as the day when the First Fleet of British naval ships brought 700 convicts and soldiers under the command of Governor Arthur Phillip to Port Jackson, New South Wales.

That could be a relatively high proportion of informed citizens, compared to the average Australia Day barbeque. For many, the events are hazy. But for others, especially Aboriginal Australians, the date marks the beginning of the undeclared conquest, a war over land not yet acknowledged in Australia’s accounts of armed conflict and not yet settled by treaty.

The Australia Day council downplays these events. It hopes there is not ‘a discriminatory, single view’ of what the day means. But how can we risk building on this fault-line?  The first commemorations were marked by different silences.

Families of former convicts in NSW first gathered in 1818 to toast their freedom and the prosperity of ‘the land, boys, we live in’, not the arrival of their forebears in leg irons. The January date was decently separated from Christmas with its memories of ‘home’, and had better weather for outdoor sport and boat races than Queen Victoria’s birthday on 24 May.

In the 1820s, settlers drank to many aspects of colonial life they appreciated; institutions that laid the foundations of Australian democracy: freedom of the press, trial by jury, a house of assembly; the economy built on ‘the fleece’ and ‘the plough’.

And they raised glasses to ‘the women of the colony’. All apparently without reflection on who was included or excluded from decision-making and citizenship.  The day was ‘for pleasure not politics’. But through the 19th century other states chose their own dates to distance themselves from NSW and the ‘convict stain’ of their origin.

The undercurrent of disquiet surfaced clearly in 1938 when Aboriginal leaders chose 26 January to focus a ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ against the dispossession of their people and campaigning for full citizenship.

The date of the referendum that acknowledged Aboriginal citizenship, 27 May 1967, has emerged as a possible alternative anniversary, alongside the last day of uncontested Aboriginal sovereignty (25 January 1788), the Eureka Stockade (3 December 1854), and the Apology to the Stolen Generations (13 February 2008).

In 2009 there was a flat ‘no’ from both sides of politics when Australian of the Year, Mick Dodson, proposed a more inclusive date to respect the wish of Aboriginal Australians, but discussion continues. Thinking metaphorically, a national date represents and is bound up with the values of a community. What theological story do we tell? How do we find a truthful, healing narrative here?

In the Gospels, Jesus says firmly ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. We understand metaphorically that truth is a person, that relationship with Jesus the Christ is a sure guide to God, for disciples now as then. The principle that truth is a person and found in relationship opens out the discussion of Australia Day too.

The awards for Australians of the Year point to something more secure than argument over dates. We find the deepest realities of the nation in its people; we understand them better through authentic relationship. The way to a truthful celebration is in love and justice beyond boundaries.

Katharine Massam
Professor Church History

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