An Invasion Day rally in Brisbane, 2007

 ‘A free country debates its history, it does not deny it.’

I don’t know what the national mood in Sri Lanka was from top to bottom as you celebrated Independence Day but here in Australia we didn’t know whether to wave a flag or char a chop – or the other way around – on Australia Day.

You grumbled at the traffic jams as roads were closed for the rehearsals of the parades but(after the laptop dance was changed) it seemed undeniably a celebration of a national day.

We only knew for sure that Australia Day was a day off work. Apart from that, its features were a kerfuffle by flag-burning militants about boycotting celebrations on grounds that it offends Aboriginal people, and talk about the Meat and Livestock Corporation’s Australia Day lamb ad which is usually quite funny but misfired this year when – or perhaps because – it suggested that this is a divided country and the only thing that brings us together is lamb cooking on a backyard barbie.

To date, five city councils (a small minority) have vowed to boycott celebrations next year saying the date, January 26, was a tragedy for Aboriginal people because 230 years agoon that day Captain Arthur Philip sailed into Sydney Cove and claimed the land for England. Unaware and no doubt uncaring that Aboriginal people had lived here for 60,000 years he called it terra nullius – nobody’s land, land for the taking. The native peoples were dispossessed and thousands were killed in the process of occupation.

Capt. Arthur Phillip raising the British flag at Sydney Cove, 26 January 1788
Capt. Arthur Phillip raising the British flag at Sydney Cove, 26 January 1788

In the short span of history since then the Aboriginal psyche hasn’t yet recovered and I can understand why some hate the idea that the rest of us celebrate this day. It’s worth noting that the date was picked in 1935, a time when Aboriginal people were so little regarded that they were not officially counted as part of the population.

It’s a conundrum. This is a land of mass immigration and arrivals want to take root quickly, grasping at the events that culturally uphold this nation; these are all post-1788 since the Aborigines have no written history.

Sri Lankan history, in comparison, is rich with landmark dates: the reigns of the great kings, the arrival of Buddhism, the commissioning of the great ancient chronicles, the arrival and despatch of waves of colonisers, independence and, more recently, the end of the 30-year civil war.

In Australia (apart from “the day that stops the nation”, Melbourne Cup Day) , we mark Anzac Day – which is about battles fought a long way away from this land – the Queen’s Birthday – which is not really the Queen’s real birthday and anyway she is a long way away too – and Australia Day, which is the only “day” that marks something that happened right here.

Now what can we celebrate nationhood with given the push to say we can’t celebrate Australia Day? If you take away something that binds the country you need to put something else in its place. This is especially important for a young nation such as ours.

Australia Day barbecue at Berridge Park, Denmark, Western Australia
Australia Day barbecue at Berridge Park, Denmark, Western Australia

The Greens Party is ramping up efforts to get more councils to boycott the event; a few small firms have decided to work through the holiday as a mark of rebellion; just the other week, the national carrier, Qantas, told its staff not to refer to the “settlement” of Australia but to “invasion” or “colonisation”.

Many people think the boycott calls are un-Australian but the hullabaloo has left a sour taste and questioning of the day we gather around the flag. Will some Aboriginal people ever feel Australian or will they only feel Aboriginal? It is unsettling to know the original inhabitants feel alienated on a day we celebrate the country.

We recent immigrants from everywhere who have no connection with British colonisers and feel we have no blood on our hands just want everyone to be happy. Will that come when scars have healed? Will it happen when Australia becomes a republic and we celebrate that instead, or will that be seen as a continuation of occupation and dispossession?

I think of my fierce grand-aunt in Kankesanthurai, who, when I was little, used to fly a black flag from her gatepost every year on February 4 “because Tamils didn’t get independence”. We youngsters wouldn’t have dared tell her to get over it although we thought so. Wouldn’t she have fallen in with the march of history by now?

Nationality, citizenship and patriotism used to be simple concepts but, with the messes left behind by colonialism and mass migration, patriotic loyalties and a right of belonging have become unclear.

Australia Day, Sydney Harbour, 2004
Australia Day, Sydney Harbour, 2004

Parliament was cast into uproar here last year when it was discovered that several MPs had dual citizenship and thus were not of sufficient Australian purity to hold office. Many had been born here to Australian parents, knew themselves only as Aussies, and some had no idea that through a parent they had nationality of another country jus sanguinis – by right of blood.

One minister’s grandparents were, as Jews under Nazi rule in Hungary, stripped of their nationality and arrived in Australia stateless, but he is now told that since that law was reversed he might have another nationality and is ineligible to sit in our parliament. The High Court is trying to sort out the shambles.

What of nationals who go off to fight in another country’s wars? If they’re jihadis and have dual citizenship they face being stripped of Australian citizenship as punishment for being involved in terrorism. One jihadi who committed grisly crimes in Syria and has Lebanese nationality by blood fell foul of that law.

But does a person stop being an Australian for being involved in terror? Aren’t nationality and crime separate issues? Did this man, Khaled Sharrouf, see himself as an Australian jihadist? Anyway, having seen him, in photos from Syria, get his little son to pose with a severed head, no-one wanted him back. Close that file.

Another citizenship conundrum received air-time this year when the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, said Australia had a “moral obligation” not to deport New Zealand criminals if they had lived most of their lives in Australia.

They are Australian, she said; they believe they are, having spent all or most of their lives in Australia; they only had weak family ties with New Zealand and had nowhere to go if deported. The moral obligation argument went nowhere. One feels Ms Ardern is putting the matter truthfully but again, we have no sympathy. Close that file too.

Aboriginal sovereignty over Australia – such as it was, having no national structure – is history. You can’t turn the clock back. Rebuffing the scattered calls to ban Australia Day or alter its date (of course there’s a hashtag, #changethedate) Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “A free country debates its history: it does not deny it”.

If only debate can heal wounds fast enough. Is it doing so in Sri Lanka after the civil war? “Civilised discourse” – are some things too raw for that?

I don’t know what can make every fellow Australian feel like a winner on Australia Day instead of a loser but, until everyone does, no one wins.




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