Features Australia

Ruing the day

21 January 2017

9:00 AM

21 January 2017

9:00 AM

Here comes Australia Day again and with it, like professional wailers preceding a Sicilian funeral, the chorus of media penitents in loud condemnation of the brutality of the British in setting an illegal foot on Terra Australis. Every year the cries of guilt and grief reach new heights of lamentation. Yet if these breast-beaters were logically consistent, they’d cash in their frequent-flyer points on a one-way ticket out of the country rather than continue to compound the initial offence by staying on in ‘occupied’ territory. Wrench though it would be to pack up and leave Balmain or North Fitzroy to the descendants of the tribes who dwelt there before 1788 (not in quite the style of those who dwell there now) it would at least prove that those who affect to regret the events that paved the way to their present comfortable existence were serious in wishing to atone for them.

As if. Critics of Australia Day never have the faintest intention of leaving Australia – leave it for a year to take a villa in France or Italy, yes, but not leave it lock, stock and barrel to the heirs of its dispossessed first inhabitants. Of course they feel the pain of indigenous deprivation. They fall over each other to call Australia Day ‘Invasion Day’, and they show their sympathy by reading books about alleged massacres of Aborigines written by historians seething with anger at being white themselves, and they try to remember when ‘Sorry Day’ is and NAIDOC week, and they think that what is happening in the townships is far less shocking than a white government’s intervention, and that of course there should be a new preamble or treaty or whatever, but as to leaving, clearing out, let’s be realistic. There are fantastic restaurants within a short drive and, well, the time wouldn’t be right anyway with Emma accepted for environmental studies and Will in the school’s first eleven and the MTC subscription just renewed. If one feels one ought to do something more, there might be the opportunity of a walk for ‘reconciliation’ or to be ceremonially smoked over at a welcome to country (the only smoking bien-pensants approve of). Isn’t that enough to show genuine contrition?

As to actually getting to know any of the Aborigines whose supposed distress they share, or having an Aboriginal family move in next door, please. Aborigines should stay in the picturesque outback where they fulfil the indispensable function of being a vehicle for guilt-ridden whites to demonstrate, at a safe distance which doesn’t oblige them to make any inconvenient sacrifice, how sorry they are.

Sorrow and empty pieties apart, whose country does the on-message liberal white Australian really, deep in his heart, believe it is anyway? Here’s a clue. In the first flush of white guilt 20 years ago Aborigines were described at ceremonies and on plaques as its ‘traditional owners’. This term has been quietly dropped, in tacit admission of the fact that if governments and councils and individuals were sincere about Aborigines being owners, they’d be logically and morally obliged to hand over the title deeds of most of Australia, including the valuable urban bits. That of course would never do, so just to be safe, ‘traditional owners’, with its implicit acknowledgment of continuing proprietorship, has been craftily changed to ‘traditional custodians’.

It is understandable that an Aboriginal who values his heritage might see Australia Day as no cause for celebration, and not having Aboriginal ancestry I have no entitlement to comment on that. But other Australians who decry the events that began on 26 January 229 years ago should ask themselves a simple question: do they honestly wish that our founding day had never happened?

Is it better that the British settled this country or is it not? An obvious first response is better for whom? – and as I say, it would be perfectly comprehensible for an Aboriginal to answer, ‘not for us’, even if it’s hard to argue that indigenous Australians gained nothing from white settlement. For a start there’s access to education and medicine for those who want it. And LED television and smartphones, for what they’re worth.

But better for an Australian of Anglo, European or other non-Aboriginal descent? Can all those Fairfax editorialists and Twitter sages who will shortly be sounding off in ritual deploration of ‘Invasion Day’ honestly say that for them, personally, it would have been preferable if the First Fleet and subsequent settlers had never come here? Can they not admit that the dispossession of the Aboriginal population was the price of the Australia in which they themselves live their privileged lives? There was no painless way European civilisation was going to establish itself in a new territory, and plenty of colonisations that were much more painful.

Invasions (and let’s stretch a point and concede that Australia was in a sense invaded) are not necessarily negative. Some invasions bring benefits as well. If the German invasion of Russia was an unmitigated evil, the Allied invasion of occupied Europe was a blessing. For an invasion to be seen as historically justifiable must depend on, in addition to your cultural and national standpoint, its long-term effects. Was the Norman Conquest a good thing? Presumably the Saxons would at first have said no, but as integration took its course succeeding generations might have taken a more relaxed view. We, when we think of Magna Carta and parliamentary democracy and everything else that followed the Norman victory in the subsequent history of Britain – not least the establishment of our own country – show by our enjoyment of that heritage that for us its benefits outweigh the slaughter on the battlefield at Hastings.

Those who dislike Australia Day are, like every Australian, inheritors of British history and of the Australia it produced and if they are honest will judge the events of our national origin accordingly – not on the basis of some faddish academic condemnation of colonialism or sanctimonious self-induced guilt over something for which they were not responsible and cannot change, but as an instance of the immemorial mixture of pain and gain by which human affairs proceed. By the criteria of who we are and where history has placed us, and by that other constant criterion of human affairs, self-interest, can critics of Australia Day say with hand on heart that they would be happier that the nation in which they live had never come about?

If the answer is yes, what a daily inner tussle they must endure between conscience and easy living.

No wonder they’re so angry on Australia Day.

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