Op-ed: “Australia Day is this country’s rose-tinted glasses”

Illustration by Issi Moore.

My name is Keenan Smith and I am a Wirangu, Mirning and Kokatha person from the far west coast of South Australia. My personal pronouns are Tjana or they/them. I am an Environmental Sciences student and the current NUS (National Union of Students) First Nations Officer. I am the inaugural chairperson for the Wirangu Aboriginal Corporation (WAC) for the Wirangu №2 & 3 Native Title claims on the far west coast of the state. I grew up in the regional towns of Port Lincoln and Ceduna. I belong to a family of strong black First Nations women, who were very active in my communities and helped guide me to become the person I am today.

January 26th has always been a date that is quite contentious when I was growing up in the country. At a young age for many First Nations people, you’re exposed to racism very early and unfortunately come to the realisation that you’re different by societal standards. In regional and remote Australia, this is magnified by the smaller populations. So, daily living is always served with a high likelihood of casual racism and subliminal segregation, just to remind you that you are in fact the other. For many First Nations people in the country, when January 26th comes around, we often don’t gather in public places, as “Australia Day” is like some kind of Get out of Jail Free Card for the racists in town. My family and I would leave town for the day and head out to a beach to escape the toxic patriotism.

When I finished school and moved to Adelaide for study and opportunities, I had no idea how big these January 26th celebrations got in the metro areas. I avoided these places; they’re not safe for First Nations peoples and especially not safe for our mental health. This is further exacerbated by the mainstream media creating biased opinion polls on social media, and the infinite number of trolls and Karens in the comment section. But on the other hand, I was exposed to the growing Survival / Invasion Day protests happening across all the capital cities. When I went to the Melbourne protest, I was in awe of the amount of people that attended and the love and support felt by the 60,000-plus people in attendance. Even though the protest was in defiance of the date, through the frustration and anger of the people, at the root of those emotions I could feel the love that many attending had for their own peoples and country (ancestral lands). This is why we were there protesting: we are sick of the injustice and lack of meaningful change, and it’s the love for our own mob and future generations that brings us out.

I view January 26th as an unnecessary date for celebration. It’s a day for white Australia to not feel guilty about dispossessing and multiple attempts to kill off this continent’s First Peoples. January 26th is Australia’s rose-tinted glasses, through which it overlooks the devastation this date brought and enables the beer to go down smoothly, without any lumps in the throat. If Australia prides itself on being this multi-cultural and progressive nation, then why is it clinging to a date that ties itself to it’s British roots? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Australia wants to remind itself it was a nation founded for white people. The reason/s to keep this date as “our” country’s national celebration can’t be justified. It undermines and disregards the feelings and trauma of First Nations Peoples.

Australia would have to be one of few countries that has its national celebration on the day it was colonised. It is exclusionary in nature, but this is an ongoing theme for Australia. This country’s national anthem was written in 1878, a time when First Nations People were literally massacred, and of course it didn’t make any mention of us. Australia’s national flag was adopted in 1903 and, still, First Nations People were either being massacred or forcibly removed from their country and onto missions. Exclusion is nothing new for us and neither is the expectation for us to participate in Australia’s celebrations, precisely under the guise of “inclusion” — listen now to how hollow that word rings. Mainstream celebrations in this country have never been to celebrate us. This expectation for us to be involved or partake in these festivities is ignorant at best if you don’t have an understanding of the history of their origins.

There are two main arguments from the First Nations community regarding Australia Day: these are changing the date or abolishing it. Whilst changing the date might suit the national narrative of Australia’s ethos for “giving everyone a fair go”, it will only shift the issues of Australia Day to another date. Abolishing January 26th and the celebration of Straya Day will demonstrate to First Nations Peoples that white Australia is prepared to deal with the Unfinished Business from the past, and the colonial legacies left in place that we still have to experience. Until we undergo a formal truth-telling process, inclusion of First Nations history in the national curriculum, and a commitment to a treaty, among other examples, we can’t as a nation celebrate together.

The measure of a country’s progress and success should be measured by the state of it’s most vulnerable.

Despite consecutive government’s only bringing about incremental change for First Nations Peoples, I am hopeful for the change the next generation will bring. We are seeing a mass mobilisation of people nationally every January 26th — and its growing. It should not stop there! The conversation must continue past this date. If you were out in protest for the Black Lives Matter movement, you are also in support of the abolishment of January 26th. The principles which underpin both movements are interconnected and can be traced back to the impacts of colonisation that First Nations Peoples are still subject to.

Always was, always will be, First Nations Peoples’ Land.

Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Ivan Jankovic, Stasi Kapetanos, Isobel Moore, and Michelle Roylance. Get in touch: onditmag@gmail.com