February 15, 2013

Horse 1441 - The Most Un-Australia Day of all is Australia Day


Australia has moved closer towards constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the Act of Recognition passing the House of Representatives today.
The Prime Minister was joined in the House by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and community leaders to mark this significant step towards a referendum.
The Bill recognises the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
This reflects wording suggested by the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, whose significant report has put in place the foundations to enable us to progress constitutional recognition.
Today also marks the fifth anniversary of the National Apology.
On 13 February 2008, we said sorry to Indigenous Australians, in particular the Stolen Generations, for past wrongs. We apologised for the pain and suffering and hurt that successive policies had inflicted on Indigenous Australians for more than two centuries.
This was the first step in building a reconciled Australia with relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.
- except from the Media Release, Prime Minister's Office, 13th February 2013.

When Kevin Rudd formally said 'sorry' to the Stolen Generation, it should have been the first of many steps towards proper reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples of this nation. The event of February 13, 2008 is one of many symbolic steps that can and should be taken. February 13 is also an excellent date because it has the potential to become so much more and I think that we can learn some valuable lessons from our cousins, our best enemies and closest of mates on the world stage, New Zealand.

February 6 in New Zealand marks Waitangi Day. Unlike January 26 in Australia where Australia Day pretty well marks the date of formal invasion of Australia, Waitangi Day marks the date when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, which marked peace between the British and Maori peoples.
When you go to Wellington and Parliament in New Zealand, the first thing that strikes you is the direct representation of Maoris in the chamber. There are a certain number of seats allocated in parliament, which can only be taken by and also, only voted for, by Maoris.

The other peculiarity is that on key issues, the question is raised about legislation is keeping with the spirit of Waitangi. New Zealand has no formal constitution, rather like the British parliament in Westminster and although like Australia and Britain, debate in the chamber can get outright rude and sometimes degenerate into a slanging match, the question of outcomes for New Zealand's indigenous people isn't argued in the abstract but rather, because there are representatives in the room, direct responses are given. You would have trouble even finding an Aboriginal member of parliament in Australia and when they are appointed, debate isn't nearly as thoughtful as in New Zealand.

If I could wave a magic wand and change the constitution tomorrow, I'd place at least one Aboriginal representative from every state in the Senate, to be voted there by Aboriginal people only.
Although the idea of recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution sounds like a nice gesture, to me that's got less meat on it than a chicken nugget. Real change and real representation comes about by putting real voices on the floors of chambers. People generally have better outcomes when they speak for themselves and to be perfectly honest Australia as a nation has been pretty shameful in this regard. It took until 1967, or 66 years after federation for Aboriginals to get the vote and that's not even including the 113 years before that since the land was stolen after being wrongly declared 'Terra Nullius'. People prefer to speak for themselves than being spoken to and that is precisely what this country has done to entire groups of people for 225 years. It's a disgrace.

The other thing we can learn from New Zealand is the day that is celebrated as the national day. Waitangi Day is as close to a national day as New Zealand has. Australia Day neither commemorates the day that Australia became a separate nation (January 1, 1901), it doesn't celebrate the day that Cook sighted the Australian coast, nor does it celebrate the day that the First Fleet landed. They arrived 8 days earlier at Botany Bay but Governor Phillip decided to go round the corner and look for somewhere nicer. January 26 marks the day when Britain stole the Australian continent through the cunning use of flags. Sail round the world, stick a flag in, ignore the people who were already living there. No wonder January 26 (in my opinion quite rightly) is called Invasion Day by some people. I think Australia Day itself is un-Australian.

In the spirit of true reconciliation, along with the changes to the Senate, the public holiday and celebration of January 26 would be done away with.
Perhaps to add a touch of symbolism, the date of February 13 should be chosen as both the day that a proper treaty is signed with Indigenous Australians, the date when those new Senators would enter the chamber, and the date of the new public holiday while the old one is quietly forgotten forever.

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