In any discussion of Australian life, of national identity, it doesn’t take long to reach the open wound of the indigenous plight. Their dispossession and disadvantage – they lag miles behind white Australia in every metric of quality of life – remains the most intractable, yawning divide in Australian politics; a mess as tangled as any consensus about how to unpick it is elusive. Inevitably, then, with Australia Day approaching, the indigenous issue resurfaces – the day, of course, commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Accordingly, this year an anti-Australia Day protest and discussion group will be held in London, marking the alternative: Invasion Day.
The event will be held at the Bank of Ideas in Sun St – just around the corner from Liverpool Street station – the new permanent residence of the Occupy movement and a forum for debate and grassroots action. According to Invasion Day co-organiser Vivenne Black, it was a logical host for the event, which will feature a screening of Samson And Delilah, an Australian film set in a remote community, followed by a discussion of indigenous issues.
“Australia Day has become this tradition of unabashed celebration, essentially of what it means to be a white Australian, but it’s all about ignoring the realities of how we came to be Australian,” Black says. “So this event is absolutely a protest against that and a gesture of solidarity with indigenous communities.
“It’s not a conversion mission, or an attack on people who want to celebrate the day, but hopefully it can raise some awareness that Australia and being Australian isn’t just a given.”
Black, 30, is from Melbourne and has been in London for 18 months. Having studied Australian history and worked in social justice, her consciousness is particularly pricked by the blinkered complacency of it all – white Australians, rich, well-fed and happy, celebrating their good fortune while airbrushing the indigenous experience and its attendant, parallel suffering.
“People across the globe do that – it’s not just Australians,” she says. “If there are no particular imperatives, then why do anything about it? The point is that it affects people in our communities – indigenous people are not non-existent – people become complacent about it by tuning it out.
“For me, as a white Australian, it affects my experience of Australia – this blanket of denial about what Australia Day means. We’re only getting half the picture, so this event is about being honest.”
This, of course, is where worldviews collide. In Australia, there already exists a cottage industry of commentators and polemicists united in opposition to the narrative codified in events like Invasion Day. Their rallying point is the refusal to accept that the ills of the Australian Aboriginal can be attributed wholesale to the arrival of Europeans, or that any celebration of the country Australia has become must be silhouetted by a eulogy for the indigenous way of life.
Most controversially, historian Keith Windschuttle has argued that colonial violence and racism has been systematically exaggerated and the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families – the Stolen Generations – is a myth. More recently, prominent poet and essayist Patrick McCauley, writing in The Australian, took a blowtorch to post-colonial guilt.
“Before European settlement the land that was to become Australia had not been mapped and it had no name. Australia is a whitefella word,” McCauley writes.
“Before European settlement, the landmass was inhabited by about 500,000 Aboriginal people with hundreds of different language groups and minimal communication or trade between them. There was no farming and, compared with European standards, life was short and brutal.”
It is, in effect, an argument that there was no Australia – nothing recognisable as a country – before European settlement. By extension, Australia’s identity as a modern, first-world country has little to do with the indigenous experience and those arguing otherwise are misguided.
“These people are blinded more by a fetish for the primitive than a love for the Aboriginal people,” McCauley writes. ”The modern human life in Australia is much longer and larger, much more creative than was the primitive indigenous life.”
It is hard to identify any middle ground between such polarised views of the indigenous experience and how best to reference it on Australia Day. It appears destined to remain a source of tension, contested territory. And, perhaps, the mere acknowledgement of complexity, of more than one side to the story, represents a broadening of horizons.
“I do see why they hate the day, the introduction of whites to their land has caused generations of Aboriginals to be treated like second-class citizens … a stigma that still haunts them today,” TNT reader Tara Maddy writes on Facebook.
“However, as a white and very proud Aussie, I love Australia Day. It is a day to celebrate the wonderful country that we call home. I feel lucky to have been born into such a beautiful land. I wish everyone would see it the way I do, instead of the anniversary of something horrible and destructive.”
Invasion Day at the Bank of Ideas, Sun St, on 26 January from 7.30pm bankofideas.org.uk Liverpool Street