Personally I’m a bit afraid of patriotism and national flag waving.
But January 26 is a day you can’t really avoid it whilst out in Oz. Australia day causes a sudden explosion of Aussie flags and more cuddly koalas, kangaroos and wombats than anyone would need to see in their lives. Whilst celebrated by most Aussies by the standard beer and BBQ in the back garden whilst blasting out triple J from the radio, the highlight of the day in central Melbourne is the parade through the city centre. With an almost American fan fare around it, marching bands and Australian soldiers led out the vast and racially diverse communities that have made Australia their homes. The only problem I found was there was one glaringly obvious community not represented.
The parade itself was a spectacle like I had never seen before. With a swathe of blue red and white covering the kerbs the road took on the appearance of a grey river cutting through the swollen crowds of people held back behind steel barriers. The city was fit to burst. Excited children pushed their noses up to the barriers whilst others opted for sitting aloft on their parents shoulders craning their necks to get a better view.
The start of the parade took on a sombre tone however. The week before a crazed driver had ploughed through crowds on Bourke street killing six and a moment of reflection in memory of those that were lost was observed by all.
Soon after the streets were filled with the sound of brass and drum as a marching band led out marching soldiers and the rest of the parade. Young scouts came rushing toward the barriers thrusting paper flag emblazoned with the southern cross and union jack in to the waiting hands. Quickly endless stream of different groups cam marching past the waiting crowds each a spectacle in their own right with some groups such as the Thai, Chinese, Sikh and Malaysians opting for big, bold and beautiful colours whilst others, such as the Scots, opted for big bold and droning sounds from their pipe bands.
This was a magnificent display of unity amongst the participants, all of whom racially and ideologically diverse who had made Australia their home. I could see Christians, LGBT, Muslim, Sikh and a every other community imaginable rubbing shoulders with one another and were greeted with glee and cheers of the waiting flag wavers. Even the galactic empire led by Darth Vader were present much to the excitement of the crowd.
But through out all of this racially diverse display of Australians identity there was no sign of the original Australians. The Aborigines do not partake in Australia day, or as the call it Invasion or Survival Day, as January 26 marks the day that the first fleet set foot at Sydney harbour and began establishing a colony there.
The aborigines did partake in January 26 though. With an equally impressive show of racial unity crowds in their thousands less than half an hour after the main parade were marching onto the very same streets where the parade had just been. Where once an ocean of blue white and red once was now an unstoppable tide of black, red and yellow advanced. In numbers I couldn’t count and as far back as I could see I saw faces of every colour; Aboriginal, Asian and European alike waving flags and placards. Soon I found myself in the heart of a protest being carried along by this unstoppable tide.
During my time in Australia I have been trying to piece together the story of the aboriginal people. Knowing that the British have a lot to do with the reason behind such a massive protest about racism and racially inequality I felt ignorant at having never learned anything about what my country had done in the past to cause such hurt and set about trying to fill this gaping chasm in my knowledge.
Sadly what I read all to often filled me with shame and disgust. I couldn’t believe the persecution I was reading about and more importantly that I had never even heard about them. With the spread of disease and countless government backed attacks and land seizures from the Aborigines it is no surprise that in the first 100 years after the arrival of the first fleet that the population dropped by 100,000. This trend continued for most of the following century as state sponsored action by both British and Australian governments saw the kidnapping of children from their parents and taken into care. The reasons they did this aren’t clear but what is clear is that this had devastating effects on families and the children themselves with sexual abuse all to common in these centres. This became known as the ‘Stolen Generation‘ and unbelievably this policy only ended in 1969.
The 1960’s thankfully began to see a change in attitude, a surge in progressive opinion took over and white Australia began question this racist attitude to the treatment of the nations original inhabitants that had been held in the past. The biggest turning point was the 1967 constitutional referendum voting on the removal of the now infamous Section 127 clause of the Australian constitution which openly discriminated against Aborigines. This momentum continued in the decades that followed with greater political legislation aimed at helping close the gap between Aboriginals and the rest of the Australian population. The most significant and poignant moment however came in 2008 when Kevin Rudd was elected as the new Prime Minister of Australia. His first order of business in Parliament was the issuing of a national apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In one of the most splendid movements in Australian political history there was finally the potential that Australia could move on from the dark days of its past.
Whilst significant progress has been made there is still a long way to go. Whilst the aborigines make up a mere 3% of the population of Australia with 548,360 people they make up 28% of the prison population. With illiteracy, unemployment, domestic abuse as well as drug and alcohol abuse being significant issues in the Aboriginal communities progress maybe isn’t coming fast enough.
Australia Day is obviously contentious issue. But from what I see Australia has so much to be proud of. January 26 showed me the wonderful diversity that this nation has with cultures openly assimilating into the melting pots of these commercial hubs of Australia and that these people are proud to call this beautiful country their home. And whilst yes the history of Australia is a dark one at times the modern generations should not be held accountable for the sins of their fathers and grand fathers. But at the same time what has happened should not be forgotten and maybe the day is misplaced leading to the feeling of alienation for the Aboriginal community who do not feel that the arrival of Europeans is something to be celebrated. Australia Day is a fantastic celebration of all things Aussie but, in my opinion, the choice of day alienates part of the Australian community, a part that it should be incredibly proud of.
On January 26 one of the highlights is Triple J’s top 100, compiling the top 100 songs of the previous year. This year A B Original, a rap duo consisting of Aboriginal rappers Briggs and Trials, released their first album ‘Reclaim Australia’ with one of the tracks called January 26. This obviously divisive track managed to make it into the top 100 making it to number 16. Amongst many of the politically charged lines within this song one line which resonated with me seems to reflect the attitude of many of the young Australians I spoke with and that is “if you ain’t having a conversation then we starting it”. I feel the conversation is well under way amongst the younger generations in Australia my hope is that Canberra can also here this conversation and continue its progressive trajectory.