Contributed by Joe Montero
Yesterday, on January 26, a part of Australia took part in various activities celebrating Australia Day. Another part made a stand against what it refers to as Invasion Day, the day that marks the planting of the British flag by Captain Cook and the dispossession of those who were already living here.
There are two different opposing concepts about our history. Put in its most basic terms. One is the history of the rulers and the other the history of the ruled. Both versions were represented at the contrasting Australia Day and Invasion Day activities.
Australia Day, which began in 1938, was founded to celebrate the British Empire. It began with a re-enactment of the First Landing: Cook coming on shore behind a military detachment with guns pointed against the inhabitants. Then the land was claimed under international law on the basis that no-one was living here.
As a colony, Australia was born as the place to dump Britain’s poor, along with home born and Irish activists. The other history emerges from the long presence of the Aboriginal people and augmented by those who came in ball and chain. Britain put the colonies under the command of a brutal military machine that worked tirelessly to destroy native society and impose what can be accurately be described as a form of slave economy to supply thew mills and factories of England.The military establishment and the first wealthy elite in the colonies, the major Squatter landholders, joined and merged together as the enforcers 0f the new economy. This is how the history of the rulers began to take shape after colonisation.
The history of the ruled is also the history of those who were subjected to the imposed power. Theirs is a history of rebelliousness and disdain for the toffs. The legend of the Aussie was born here, to become more so as bigger numbers made it to our shores in search of gold, for land to farm and to escape the brutality and strict class distinctions of the Old World.
Eureka was a spotlight, not only on the aspirations for freedom from the old ruling cast, but a cauldron of the diverse origins of the population. Some were of British heritage. Others had come from Ireland. There were Americans both white and black, Italians, Greeks and so on. There was a sizable Chinese population at the time. The original Australians were an important part of the Australian population.
By 1856, Australia and already become a multicultural society, even if there remain a few that would deny it. They don’t realise yet that multiculturalism is not a policy, but an expression of existing reality. You can’t manufacture it.
The founders Australia Day did not do this because they wanted to show the world that they were proud of being Australian. Their ties were with Britain. They were the elite who were continuing to benefit from the tie. That is why on the first Australia Day it was not the Australian flag that was raised first, it was the British flag. Listen to the newsreels of the day and they show that it was the custom to ditch anything hinting of an Australian accent and sound more English than the English. This suggest a lot.
This identity as part of England and the Empire is the reason why each year the Queen’s honours had been handed down each year on Australia Day. The change to Australian honours did not change it.
On a deeper level, the official Australia Day has been in the hands of the same elite and used as a tool to manipulate and lead people into accepting their view of the world.
The truth is that the has always been a clash between the world of the rulers and the world of the ruled. Not only at Eureka.The first Australians fought against their dispossession. The convict and early settlers fought against exploitation. There were the 1890’s strikes, involving the owners of the sheering sheds, mines and waterfront, all closely tied to supplying the mills and factories on England. It is out of rebellion that the notion of a fair go was born.
When the prime minister pledged, “to the last shilling and last man,” in order to defend the empire during the First World War, there was a rising against being conscripted to die on foreign shore. When in the 1930’s the politicians were told by a visiting British Minister that they must cut wages in Australia they did what they were told. It was called the Premiers Plan. Australians opposed their subservience.
So it has continued. The fake British accents might have gone. There is no longer talk about the mother country and empire. Time has moved on. But it remains that Australia Day remains an occasion for the elite to parade their stuff and to try and draw us into accepting their right to rule, through a manufactured image of what it means to be Australia. With this comes a package of narrowness and fear of anything different.
We are more than the barbie, more than an intolerant mob afraid of change and anyone who is a little different. We are more than a crowd that can’t see the irony of parading the British flag on our clothes, faces and head. This is not a dig on being proud to be Australian. On the contrary. It is right to have pride in who you are and no-one should be attacked for it. However, with this comes a responsibility to be proud of the real thing and not a manufactured substitute.
Pride in being Australian must be based on values that are not of the rulers. A real Australian cherishes the history of rebellion and working together to carve a new and different nation, with its disdain for the rulers, their exploitation and airs. A real Australian refuses to bow down before titles.For an Australian, to recognise this is to be yourself.
Being yourself also means recognising that the taking of this land by invaders was wrong. The first Australians are a major part of our history and we have the responsibility to pull together, to undo the harm that has been caused and to join with the first Australians as equals.
Non-white immigrants have also been treated badly. There is the story of the Chinese. Australian had a White Australia Policy that blocked all but white people from coming here. Although this has gone now, remnants of past attitudes remain. We need to deal with this too.
Failure to take these things on board means to lock ourselves onto the coattails of the wealthy and privileged elite. It divides us as a people and brings harm to all but they. Through rejection of outworn attitudes, we free ourselves, reject the control of the elite, unite a diverse range of Australians into one people, and through this, give ourselves an opportunity to build a better future.