Tomorrow is Australia Day. I’ve posted about it before and this column by Nakkiah Lui remains a must-read each year. One thing that has changed is that columns like Lui’s have ignited public conversation about the celebrations. This culminated last month with a City of Fremantle initiative.
It started with this:
Fremantle bumped Australia Day events by two days, citing Aboriginal cultural sensitivities. The assistant immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said the commonwealth would not allow the council to hold citizenship ceremonies as part of its planned events on 28 January because it would give an anti-Australia Day message. The council could hold them on 26 January as normal, or on any other day as long as it was not marketed as an alternative to Australia Day, Hawke said. Otherwise the immigration department would perform the ceremonies. “Citizenship has got to be apolitical, noncommercial, bipartisan and secular,” Hawke told ABC radio on Monday.
Yep, citizenship ceremonies should be apolitical, noncommercial, bipartisan and secular. But there’s nothing apolitical about having them on January 26th. After all, it does mark the arrival of the First Fleet in Port Jackson/Sydney Harbour. Just because something has a long tradition of being accepted as status quo doesn’t mean that it’s not apolitical. The political message is that the arrival of the First Fleet is worthy of celebrating by all Australians, the title “Australia Day” creating the enforced link to national identity etc.
By “igniting public conversation” I meant the general public. Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples have been mourning this date and its celebrations stretching back to at least 1938. So we have for at least 79 years (over 3 generations!) made an ongoing, deliberate choice to continue things the way they are. Even if you do agree with this choice, it’s pretty silly to argue that it’s not a choice. If you want to keep Australia Day as is you probably take umbrage at the idea of white privilege, but what better illustration of the concept than the idea that a date very widely mourned by the country’s first inhabitants is the apolitical/”objective” choice?
While conservatives use the term political correctness as a bludgeon for basically anything they don’t like, I think they make a lot of demands for political correctness themselves. Hawke’s view is a classic case of conservative political correctness. We’re supposed to ignore the very obviously disparaging message that having celebrations on the 26th sends to Aboriginal Australians, so as not to offend those used to that status quo. Being forced to consider whether you might be supporting a racist institution is seen as more harmful, and its victims in need of more protection, than actually living under the racist institution.
The disproportionate nature of the offence taken by the “don’t slander Australia day” crowd reminds me of a fictionalised case:
As for Fremantle council, other made similar points:
The Fremantle mayor, Brad Pettitt, told the West Australian that the council would try to convince Hawke a ceremony on 28 January would be “like every other”. If that doesn’t work they will hold a citizenship ceremony on another day, so long as it is not 26 January.
The WA senator Rachel Siewert said it was hypocritical of the Turnbull government to accuse Fremantle of using citizenship as a political football and disingenuous to characterise opposition to the date change as apolitical. “I think they need to look at what they have been doing with citizenship before they accuse anyone else of using citizenship as a political football,” she told Guardian Australia.
Siewert said continuing to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January, given the history of the date and the distress it caused Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, would also make a political statement.
Unfortunately the dream was not to last:
Fremantle has bowed to pressure from the federal government and agreed to reinstate its citizenship ceremony on Australia Day.
[O]n Thursday Alex Hawke, the federal assistant immigration minister, informed the council it [the council] could not hold the ceremonies [on Jan 28th] “under any circumstances” and imposed a 5pm deadline for their reply.
“Australia Day is our national day and is a perfectly appropriate and suitable choice for an Australian citizenship ceremony to be held.”
This shows up the problem with having a national holiday on January 26th. It’s not a meaningless gesture. The status quo’s symbolism was important enough for Hawke to cite as the reason that Fremantle council shouldn’t be able to host a more inclusive ceremony.
As hard as it was to plead ignorance about this, it’s gotten even harder in the last few years. We must be aware that to be involved in celebrations tomorrow is to perform a deliberate, political and social action. It’s probably easier for us to see this for an outside case like Columbus Day. It’s true, tomorrow isn’t called Captain Cook Day — but it might as well be called Empire Day. Let’s not make future generations (if there are any) even more ashamed than they would be from all the other stuff.