While I participated in a recent conversation about Australia Day on a local radio station in the British Isles, a listener asked a common but offensive question: “Is Australia Day a celebration of the genocide of Australian Aboriginals?”
The question is pretty terrible on two levels: firstly, it reveals an ignorance of what Australia Day celebrates literally, and secondly, it reveals an offensiveness of what Australia Day celebrates metaphorically. Unfortunately, in a world of social media attention spans, cheap jack opportunists have taken their black-armband view of history to spread ideas that are offensive and based on ignorance. This is why inane videos calling for Australia Day to be moved were shared widely and quickly on social media in 2017.
Australia Day is not a Literal Celebration of Genocide
The literal occasion of Australia Day is a celebration of the First Fleet moving from their relatively undesirable initial landing at Botany Bay, to a much better-placed colony in Sydney Cove, which had far superior access to fresh water. There was no war when the British arrived in either location. On arrival, there were no guns fired. On arrival, all reports indicate that the first British colonists and the Aboriginal people had no violent confrontation. Indeed, King George III gave clear direction to Governor Philip that “the Aborigines’ lives and livelihoods were to be protected and friendly relations with them encouraged.” That’s not the direction that a King issues when he wants to wage genocide upon a people.
Of course, the British policy of the 18th century is clearly not as enlightened as Australian policy of the 21st century. It certainly wasn’t perfect, with the British working from a basic presumption that the Australian continent was terra nullius and owned by no one. More recent Australian law has overturned that assumption with the Mabo High Court case and the recognition of native title. That said, British policy of the time wasn’t evil, either: an early draft of King George’s directions referred to the Aboriginal people as ‘savages’ but the final version referred to them as ‘natives’. Again, that’s not to say that King George III was a model of modern 21st-century equality, but by the standards of his time, he wasn’t barbaric either.
Let’s also consider the counter-factual idea: Does anyone seriously believe that Aboriginal Australians would have been better off left to their own devices? Similarly, would Aboriginal Australians be better off if Australia had been colonised by the Chinese, or by the French, or by the Spanish, or by the Dutch? To put it mildly, that proposition seems rather unlikely.
Australia Day is not a Metaphorical Celebration of Genocide
Beyond the actual events that took place on 26 January, 1788, Australia Day has come to be a celebration of everything that Australia has become. In that sense, it is a celebration of the Australian way of life and the key ideas that Australia now represents.
Those foundational principles are good principles: the rule of law, free and open democracy, and respect for people’s rights to (broadly) live their lives as they wish.
Those principles were inherited from the Kingdom of Great Britain, and then the United Kingdom of Great Britan and Ireland – so when people talk metaphorically about the genocide represented by Australia Day, they implicitly accuse the British Empire of the 1700s and the 1800s of being a genocidal empire, when that simply isn’t the case.
These Isles are probably the world’s longest standing force for good in the history of this planet: they have been a strong home to so many freedoms that we now take for granted, such as the unbroken 802-year recognition that everyone is bound by laws, even our monarchs. These Isles didn’t just give the world the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster – but are also the home of the world’s longest continually operating parliament in the Isle of Man, which dates back even further.
As if instituting the rule of law, and being the home of democracy isn’t enough, these Isles led the world in abolishing slavery, and was a lone beacon in Europe of home and freedom during the world’s darkest hours in confronting the evils of National Socialism.
Australia Day should be – and is – a proud celebration of what it means to be Australian. It should also be a proud celebration of Australia’s cultural, legal and civic inheritance from a relatively small, but incredibly important, chain of islands off the coast of Europe. We can all be thankful for that.