Conflicting Narratives on Australia Day

January 26, 2018  •  1 Comment

The official 2018 Australia Day parade in Melbourne yesterday started off conventionally enough. A navy band dressed in white marched down Swanston Street playing “Waltzing Matilda.” Then came more military types and some kids carrying a large Australian flag. But after that, it got complicated.

A delegation representing Australia’s community of immigrants from India marched by, the women dressed in colorful saris. They carried a big Indian flag and smaller Aussie flags. Then came Chinese associations, including parade dragons. Then Filipinos with parasols, Japanese in kimonos, Solomon Islanders in grass skirts and Sikhs in turba ns.

After them Superman marched past. Actually, he was bearing the standard of the Melbourne cosplayers’ group. He was accompanied by the Flash, Supergirl, Cinderella, ewoks and Imperial storm troopers. Then came Buddhists, Miss Sri Lanka Australia 2017, and a delegation of transgender people and drag queens. By the time a group of people riding antique bicycles and tricycles, the kind with enormous front wheels, rolled by, they looked a little dull.

The parade was a very telegenic display of Australia’s diversity. But it was incomplete. No representatives of Australia’s aboriginal people marched, and that was no coincidence.

Australia Day, January 26, commemorates the day in 1788 when the British flag was first raised over Australia and Britain, as was its imperial wont in those days, claimed the territory for the Crown. This, of course, displaced the existing inhabitants, and it is the original sin of modern Australia, much as the dispossession and near extermination of the Native Americans is the original sin of the United States.

The major difference is that the United States set July 4 as its national holiday, commemorating the Declaration of Independence from Britain. Thus, the Fourth of July can be presented as a celebration of freedom. (There is, I understand, a causal relationship between our national holiday and the Aussies’. After the Declaration of Independence was made to stick by the Revolutionary War, Britain felt the need for more colonies and sent the expedition to Australia.) The date of Australia’s national holiday commemorates colonialization, and therefore every year rubs the noses of the aboriginal people in their historic humiliation and subjugation.

In fact, it’s become a bit of a tradition in Melbourne that right after the official January 26 parade, protesting supporters of the aboriginals march the identical route down Swanston Street. This happened yesterday, and I would have to say that the protesters appeared to outnumber the participants in the carefully orchestrated official parade.

Originally, I have read, the goal of the January 26 protest march was to persuade Australia to change the date of its national holiday, presumably selecting a day not so closely associated with imperialism. However, judging by the chants and signage of the protest demonstration, the grievance goes deeper than that. “Fuck the date. Change the system,” one sign read. “Always was…always will be…aboriginal land,” was the most common chant I heard, followed by “Abolish Australia!”

I’m not sure exactly what would happen if Australia were indeed abolished. Perhaps, all the whites and Filipinos and Solomon Islanders would be deported. An aboriginal government would be established and given the power to decide whom to let back in, if anyone. Or maybe the protesters would want major reparations paid to the aboriginals. I couldn’t ask the protesters, because the same crowd control fences that were used for the official parade were still in use an hour later for the protest.

But it was evident that the two marches presented very different narratives. The official parade was saying that Australia is an immigrant land. In this narrative, the British colonialists may have been among the first to arrive, but they have been followed by many others, and Australia today is a melting pot of respected, equal ethnic groups that allows each of them to thrive.

The counter-narrative, represented by the protesters, holds that the essence of Australia remains white oppression of people of color, regardless of how many ethnic groups the city of Melbourne can recruit to put on colorful clothes and smile for the cameras televising the parade.

I have to say that I find the protesters’ narrative a bit ahistorical. Coincidentally, on Australia Day, the journal Science reported that archaeologists in Israel have determined that some fossils found in a cave there prove that early humans left Africa sometime between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago. That puts the beginnings of humanity’s dispersal from its east African birthplace some 50,000 years earlier than previously established.

If you accept the science, the chant of “Always was…always will be…aboriginal land,” is false.  Australia was uninhabited land (from the human perspective) before the first humans arrived. The aboriginals, if they were first, merely got there before everyone else, just as the people who crossed the Bering Strait and migrated southward were the first to get to the Americas. They may well have killed or assimilated humans or hominids who were there before them, as archaeology indicates Cro-Magnon man did with Neanderthal man in Europe.

But science tends to conflict with the traditional narratives of people who consider themselves the original inhabitants. These narratives usually involve some sort of deity that gave the land to the people. Such narratives are powerful—and impossible to disprove.

So I don’t know what will happen in Australia—or the Americas for that matter. How do we know which people came first to a given territory, since the current claimants may well have obliterated traces of yet earlier inhabitants? If we could determine it, what privileges should come with the claim of having been first? What would justice look like for groups the Canadians call First Nations. Do we organize society on the basis of ethnic groups and ethnic rights or on the basis of common humanity?

Tough questions. You won’t read the answers here. I’m here to watch tennis and play golf.


Frank Van Riper(non-registered)
Thoughtful and deftly written piece, Bob. I have no answers, either, though I share your skepticism of the 'always was...always will be' crowd. That Australia--even in an orchestrated national parade--can generate such diversity is a remarkable thing, and certainly an example for the 'Make America Hate Again' USA...FVR
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