a beer for a more just australia day

Raising a stubby for justice?

Thursday 25 January 2024 3:29 PM

Australia Day is tomorrow. Here are some of my reflections on the continuing national conversation about the contested date for the celebration.

This year I’ve been introduced to a couple of arguments advanced, usually quite sincerely, by Australians contesting for the continued observance of 26 January as Australia Day. None are new as such. But they’ve largely escaped my attention, at least. I hope we might continue to listen to each other with respect across our differences. And so I hope to contribute in that vein.

One of the new (to me) lines of thought has to do with historic injustice in Australia, and who has suffered it. In short the contention is that, since injustice has been perpetrated upon non-indigenous people as well as aboriginals, it would be fitting for all Australians, first and second peoples, to acknowledge the mutuality of injustice, and accordingly together rule a line under the past, and thus “move forward together”. I hope I’ve fairly represented that viewpoint.

On the surface it sounds thoughtful and logical. But as I’ve reflected the question of comparability emerges. Let me try a real life illustration. Cast your mind back to the 1995 Port Arthur massacre. A little-noticed detail I recall (I’m one of those weird ‘details people’ - ISTJ if you speak MBTI) from the reporting at the time was something the gunman Martin Bryant said while being interviewed. He said, "I got burned. No one cares about that, I suppose?”

Now if we consider that statement as a simple report of fact, a personal plea, it is in fact absolutely true and valid. Bryant suffered burns through finding himself in a burning building in the aftermath of the mass shooting he had perpetrated. So at one purely logical level we might agree with him. He was injured, and accordingly received medical care.

But I venture to guess that very few Australians then or since, and surely not a single one of the friends or loved ones of the 35 people whose lives were summarily taken, would have the slightest sympathy with Bryant. Indeed I expect we'd be outraged that he dared compare the burns he suffered with the trauma visited upon the survivors of the attack, let alone the sense of grief and outrage visited upon the many shocked and grieving families and in a wider sense the whole nation.

Now thinking of our indigenous fellow Australians, past and present, I don't think I at least could contemplate comparing whatever injustices I personally may have experienced, nor any injustice experienced by white Australians since 1788, with the comprehensive and devastating injustices experienced by aboriginals. I could no more do that than suggest that Bryant and the families of his 35 victims are fellow sufferers who should shake hands and move on. To do so would merely multiply the injustice. In common speech we'd call it "tone deaf" to say the very least.

I must add though that there is a particular ‘variant’ of this view, which at one level may seem more compelling. The injustices suffered by convicts in Australia’s early pre-nation era. The convicts were non-indigenous, of course. And according to informed estimates I’ve seen, somewhere between 20 and 25% of Australian citizens today have at least one convict in their family tree. 

Now though that isn’t an insignificant proportion of us, it is far from the majority, and I suspect is more likely to fall than rise in the future, subject to net migration. Either way it doesn’t strike me as a basis on which second peoples might propose a ‘bargain’ with first peoples. The latter population has been decimated to a fraction of what it was, and for the ‘fortunate’ survivors a quality of life a long way below either that of their ancestors or the great majority of white Australians today, descended from convicts or not. If I were an indigenous Australian, I sincerely doubt I’d sign the ‘deal’. That’s just my honest take. And here’s one indigenous perspective that may help us.

And so we approach Australia Day. Two more brief angles to close with. For fellow Christians (evangelical or not), here’s a considered reflection by one current day Christian leader. How might Christians reflect biblically as well as socially or politically? And lastly this … As I’ve commented before, I’m personally a big fan of 1st September, Wattle Day as an alternative date for a united celebration of Australia. No political stoushes (except maybe between gardening zealots?). And the worst that could happen is you might sneeze. But if so, then you would anyway.

Addendum - further thoughts from social media conversations ...

Here's another line of thinking I've heard a couple of times just today. Rather more reactionary and less thoughtful than those I've commented on above. It has been said in my hearing that "the haters" won't be satisfied until Australia Day is no more. Apparently they "hate Australia".

Now I don't know who these "haters" are, and I do wonder whether anyone making this assertion has met such a person. I can't say. But for the record I don't know a single person who wants there to be no Australia Day at all.

So I reckon it's a myth, likely representing an inability or unwillingness to listen and reflect when the date of Australia Day is in view. To illustrate from daily life — If you invite me to meet up for coffee and I suggest a different date, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to meet you. It doesn’t mean “Yeah, nah”. In fact it means the opposite. Meeting you matters enough to me that I want to a find a date that works for us both.

And here's another one I've just been reminded of in another conversation. It is proposed that 'Sorry Day (26/5)' should be matched by 'Forgiveness Day' where the indigenous community responds to 'Sorry', allowing us all to move on in mutual good will.

Here are the thoughts I shared with my friend in that conversation:

Oh ok. Well a couple of thoughts on that then.

1. Forgiveness is about grace. By its very nature it can only be offered freely by the victim/s of wrongdoing. It can't be demanded of the victims by the perpetrators (or their descendants or beneficiaries). Demanding it in fact is a further abuse. For illustration, not a few Christians who've abused their spouse have compounded the abuse with "God says you have to forgive me".

2. Where forgiveness is offered, it doesn't erase the injustice, and nor does it necessarily alter the practical consequences. The murderer whose victim's family have forgiven them still goes to prison. The bank teller caught with their hand in the till may be forgiven by a gracious boss. But they still have to repay the money and  may still lose their job. Etc.

3. I've just thought of another one. I find forgiveness easier to offer where the person who wronged me (or their beneficiary) demonstrates contrition. I daresay that would be a common experience. Now it seems to me that if white Australia keeps digging in defensively over the 26/1 date, that will not look like contrition to the aggrieved indigenous.

And that really comes back to grace, which we as beneficiaries of the gospel would know well. We can't demand grace from the other party. We can choose to offer it from our end.