Politics

The Arguments Against Changing The Date Don’t Stack Up

Ignorance isn't an excuse, it's a choice.

This week Junkee is publishing a series, produced by young Australian writers, called “This Is Why I Don’t Celebrate Australia Day”.

I’ve been the guy with beer in hand, shirt open, and a temporary Australian flag tattoo on my face. At the time, I loved it. I was celebrating with mates. I was sure of that and that was enough.

It was only two years ago when I began to question what I was celebrating. It wasn’t as easy to pinpoint as I had expected. I was celebrating Australia, that much was clear, but what about it? Was it mateship? That was something I enjoyed about Australia Day but wasn’t every Friday night, every Saturday spent together, a celebration of that sort?

Out of what must have been a reflex of moral self-preservation and justification, I decided that Australia Day was about inclusion and respect. Yes, that was something worth celebrating. What a forward-thinking country we must be to have a public holiday dedicated to these lofty ideals.

Who was I including? Who was I respecting? Sure, the Australia Day parties I attended were inevitably populated by a large majority of white Australians who looked like me, thought like me, and had the same privileged upbringing as me, but the important thing was that we would have been happy for anyone to join us. If only they had asked. Surely they, whoever they were, were off having their own Australia Day parties, getting just as pissed and waving just as many Australian flags about as we were?

Even as the flimsy walls of my moral fortress began to fall around me, as I was introduced to another perspective on January 26, a flurry of excuses came to mind. Two excuses that seemed especially apt to protect my fragile national identity were: “How could I be to blame for my actions when I didn’t know what they meant to others?’ and “Wasn’t sinking a couple of beers on a sunny day with family and friends, a day endorsed by major sporting institutions, my favourite radio station, and the government, far removed from ideas of invasion and attempted genocide?”

All of the above fills me with a deep sense of shame now.

We Have A Choice To Listen

It seems obvious now that ignorance is not always a chance occurrence, but a choice.

My first excuse, the “I didn’t know” excuse, is the best and worst excuse of all time. It absolves all blame for past actions because when you say “I didn’t know what I was doing was wrong” you’re saying you haven’t made a moral decision at all. You claim not to have a hand in the game but to operate outside the game.

But that doesn’t fly when you’re talking about an action that, whether you acknowledge it or not, places you firmly on one side of a debate. Like, say, celebrating a day that for the original owners of your country marks the invasion and systematic murder, pillage, rape, kidnapping, and incarceration of their people.

Even if ignorance is genuine and total, which would be nigh on impossible thanks to the amplification of Indigenous voices and the debate surrounding triple j’s decision to change the date of the Hottest 100, it doesn’t provide a justification for future conduct. Once I knew what I was doing was wrong, I knew I had to change it.

You Can’t Seperate Australia Day From What It Represents

My second excuse, the “What I’m celebrating has nothing to do with invasion” excuse, is a bit meatier. Yes, Australia is a beautiful country which ought in many respects to be celebrated. No, the vast majority of Australians, including my former self, aren’t consciously celebrating attempted genocide. When we scull a beer, Captain Cook isn’t in the front of our minds. When we wave a flag, we aren’t doing it in memory of the First Fleet.

But the truth is that history is not something that happens in the past. When I began talking to more Aboriginal people about January 26, I realised there is no line in the sand that separates us from history. History is something we live and create every day, where today is a direct result of what happened yesterday and the day before that and so on.

Last year, at my first Invasion Day rally, the connection became obvious. I saw the First Fleet not as the beginning of history in this country but as an anomaly after continuous Aboriginal ownership of the land. The slaughter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by white invaders was not an unfortunate quirk of history but an atrocity. I saw the celebration of January 26 as a continuation of all the policies and acts perpetrated against Indigenous Australians.

And against that realisation, what? A vague sense of mateship? A day off work? I say, keep the public holiday and make it what it really is. A day of mourning. We won’t have something to truly celebrate until the vision set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a reality.

Michael Ouzas is a young lawyer, writer, and filmmaker who enjoys cycling and travelling.

Feature image by Eva RinaldiCC BY-SA 2.0