Professor Bob Morgan
Australians have just endured yet another series of debates about the relative merits of January 26 as the appropriate date to mark Australia Day.
Aboriginal and other non-Aboriginal supporters who challenge the date are told to ‘get over it’ and to move on.
Interestingly, Aboriginal people have never told Australia to get over ANZAC day because we know, and have lived, the pain of loss and the nobility of sacrifice – including the many Aboriginal men and women who enlisted to defend Crown and Country during wars.
And they did so without being officially recognised as Australian citizens.
As with other colonised countries, Australia has a history mired in fiction and fallacy.
The initial and most obvious fiction was the application, by the British at the time of invasion, of the now expunged legal doctrine of terra nullius, which was used to formalise and indeed justify the annexation, by judicial stealth of a country that was the home of Aboriginal peoples for tens of thousands of years.
It always was – it always will be.
Orbiting this fiction is the perennial annual jousting around the meaning and purpose of ‘Australia Day’ and when it should be celebrated.
History tells us that Cook’s voyage to the Southern Seas between 1768 and 1771 had at least two distinct purposes.
The voyage started as a journey of scientific discovery, but it later became a joint venture when the British Admiralty (Royal Navy) saw it as an opportunity to discover new navigation routes and trading opportunities that, it was believed, would increase the maritime power and colonial reach of the British Crown.
The scientific objective was clear, but the British Admiralty adopted a more clandestine and furtive approach to its instructions, which were in two parts.
The first part was open, instructing Cook to observe the transit of Venus to aid navigation.
The second part was sealed in an envelope by the British Admiralty, which was to be opened only by Cook.
The sealed instructions included the directive that Cook was ‘with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations (Australia) in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain’.
No consent ‘of the Natives’ was sought, nor was it given, and Cook took possession of the eastern seaboard of Australia on Possession Island, off the coast of North Queensland on August 22, 1770, thus setting in train the events that we still grapple with 251 years later.
So, what does January 26 historically mark, and is it the most appropriate day on which to celebrate the ‘founding of the nation’?
At its most blunt and honest point, January 26 actually marks the day when the First Fleet of British convict ships arrived at Sydney Cove, and founded the penal colony of NSW, not the Australian nation.
I often wonder what the descendants of the convicts who were transported to the penal colony in 1788, and beyond, feel about an event that marks the convict origins of their forebears?
Do they also celebrate, or is this also a ‘Day of Mourning’ for them?
Scott Morrison, Australia’s transactional Prime Minister, in a recent response to Cricket Australia’s decision to drop the reference to Australia Day for games played on January 26, commented: ‘You know, when those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either’.
Morrison’s puerile attempt to draw moral equivalency between the invasion, historical trauma and dispossession of Aboriginal peoples with the plight of those on the ships reminds me of the words uttered by Trump following the fatal 2019 Charlottesville white supremacy riots.
When asked about the riot, Trump said: ‘You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides’.
A similar group of ‘very fine people’ were also involved with the insurrection and failed coup that occurred in Washington on January 6, 2021.
Australia is a country of boundless possibilities, but it will never achieve its true destiny until the soft unspoken murmur in the souls of many, if not most, non-Aboriginal Australians is answered through a dignified truth telling and just reconciliation process.
This will require something that is sorely missing in our country; mature political, corporate, and civic leadership, one that leads our nation to a place where it can acknowledge its past while striving to create a more inclusive, just, and equitable nation.
The energy and passion of the younger generations, coupled with the wisdom and resilience of older generations, will ensure that the date when Australia, as a nation, is celebrated, it will inevitably change, so that the day is more inclusive, respectful of difference, and truly celebratory for all Australians.
The day will be a day dedicated to human dignity and healing rather than division. The dialogue is just and enduring, because there is never a wrong time to do right.
Professor Bob Morgan is a Gumilaroi man from Walgett in western NSW. He is a highly respected and acknowledged Aboriginal educator/researcher who has worked extensively throughout Australia and internationally in the field of Aboriginal knowledge and learning for over forty years.
Professor Morgan is currently Chair of the Board of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Education and Research (BATSIER) and also serves as Conjoint Professor with the Wollotuka Institute with the University of Newcastle (UON). Professor Morgan was the founding President of the NSW AECG, a Commissioner with the now defunct NSW Education Commission. He is also the inaugural Chair of the Council of the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education (WIPCE).