This Politician Questioned Australian Nationalism And Copped A Bunch Of Racism In Response

"I was born in Australia but people were telling me to go back to where I came from."

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January 26 has become a focal point for conversations about history, identity and Australia’s violent colonial past. But debates about Australia Day can pretty quickly devolve into outright racism, and even threats of violence, as one Queensland politician recently discovered.

Jonathan Sri, a Greens councillor representing The Gabba ward of Brisbane City Council, posted a picture on Facebook of a sign promoting the Colonial Brewing Company, with the slogan “Every day is Australia Day”.

The sign was hanging outside The Fox Hotel in Brisbane, and Sri posted that he had rung the hotel to “to let them know [he] thought their banner could be a little insensitive to some people and that they perhaps might want to reconsider their messaging in future”.

He went on to call for “more respectful, thoughtful conversations about these kinds of ads, what underlying messages and values they’re reinforcing [and] whether we think they’re appropriate”. “I think there are legitimate questions to be asked about the kind of nationalism/jingoism which is celebrated on Australia Day and what kind of national identity this is reinforcing. Do we even NEED an Australia Day, or does this form of patriotism simply reinforce arbitrary divisions between fellow human beings?”

The post generated hundreds of comments, some taking up Sri’s call for a respectful debate about Australia Day and the use of language that whitewashes the legacy of colonialism, but many commenters just hurled racist abuse.

“Leave the country, go live somewhere else,” said one. “Go back to where you came from,” posted another (not so creative) commenter.

Sri, who was born and raised in suburban Brisbane, found the response confusing. “A lot of people seemed to think that my Sri Lankan ancestry is somehow relevant to the issue,” he told Junkee. “I was born in Australia, but people were posting telling me to go back to where I came from. The first and obvious conclusion from this incident is that overt racism is still prevalent in our society.”

“The post questions the role of Australia Day and of nationalism. I’m not ramming the opinion down people’s throats, the tone of it is about asking people’s opinions. People aren’t reacting against that specific post; they’re reacting against anything that is seen as an attack on Australia Day.”

Sri says that he was asked by a member of the Indigenous community in his electorate to raise the issue of the Fox Hotel’s sign with the pub’s management.

“The staff member at the hotel was really friendly and polite,” he said. “I don’t see it as constructive to attack the Fox or criticise management. It’s about encouraging further conversations about this kind of advertising.

“Unfortunately we have this rabid segment of society that doesn’t tolerate those kind of discussions. A few hard-right forums become aware of posts like this and just go nuts. I don’t think they represent the majority, but they are still significant numbers.”

Sri believes that the resurgence of Pauline Hanson, a fellow Queenslander, appears to be emboldening some sections of the public too. “We’re losing nuance in our public discourse. Some of the most violent and racist views are being aired in the public sphere at an intensity we haven’t seen previously,” he said.

“I’ve noticed in the last few months a higher frequency in the comments of my posts along the lines of ‘love it or leave’, and other forms of racist abuse. When I question nationalism… they’re the [posts] that attract the most controversy.”

Some commenters disagreed with the sentiments in Sri’s post and argued that it wasn’t the place of a local councillor to be starting discussions on nationalism and colonial history. Sri feels differently. “I think it’s an important role of elected representatives at all levels of government to be prompting debate and discussion. [We should] provide the space for bigger discussions around these kinds of issues, particularly around national identity,” he said.

“The role of a councillor has never been limited to sewage and rubbish bins and traffic congestion. At Brisbane City Council, where each electorate represents 30,000 people, voters look to us expecting leadership.”

Sri pointed to Fremantle Council’s decision to move their Australia Day celebrations to another day as an example of how local government can show leadership on the issue.

“When Australia does so many repugnant things, for example our asylum seeker policy, so many elected representatives pass the buck — ‘Oh that’s a federal issue’ they say. If the people of your electorate are frustrated, you should be talking about it. It should’t matter if it’s technically outside your portfolio.”

“Lasting social change tends to come from the bottom up,” he said. “You’re never going to see state or federal governments changing the date unless you see local councils do it first.”

Yesterday Sri posted a video on Facebook calling for a “rethink” of Australia Day.

“As a child, I always felt uncomfortable about Australia Day because it was the time of year when I felt least welcomed and accepted by my community, despite being born in Brisbane and having known no other home,” Sri said.

But he repeated his calm for a mature discussion on the issue. “The need for nuanced, empathetic dialogue goes both ways,” he said. “I don’t think it’s constructive or fair to argue that everyone who happens to go to a backyard barbeque on 26 January is racist.”

“So all I’m asking this year, is that people approach the conversation with respect and an open mind. If you’re not quite sure what you think of it all, take the time to read a few opinion pieces or watch a few videos about the issue.”