What should we do about Australia Day?

Either verbally or via Facebook and email, several people have asked my thoughts on the above issue.

I don’t have a clear answer. What I have is a perspective that may be useful to help people understand how I make sense of the question.

The focus of my perspective is on Indigenous people and their history since the arrival of non-Indigenous people (which means any race that is not either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander). It’s a history that I generalize as being one of dislocation, dependence and disadvantage which non-Indigenous people often perpetrated, yet, Indigenous people are the traditional owners of the country.

Before or after you read this, you may like to read a couple of relevant stories in my website, www.aussieyarns.com . If so, click on the Short Stories tab and go to two stories:

  • Assimilation
  • Disadvantage and Dysfunction.

Both give background that is useful to the perspective I am about to offer. And, as I always add, the stories and perspective are my views from three decades of walking with and chatting and listening to Aboriginal people. I am not speaking for them.

Now to the perspective. As an organisation, my company CSCPL always works to a program we devised called Walk Together. The program evolved over a couple of decades while working in a world between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. As it evolved to what it is today, I realised it is a simple way of defining progress towards a partnership or an agreed way of working: “From Dependence to Interdependence”. The model is just as pertinent to assessing non-Indigenous groups as it is to Indigenous ones but, as explained, my focus is on the traditional owners

So what does “From Dependence to Interdependence” mean? Try this model and the four natural stages it outlines from left to right.


To explain it, at a very simple level, think of raising kids. At the start, it’s total dependence on the parents, but then, from somewhere, kids learn the word “NO!!!”, use it frequently and often angrily. Then come the mid-teen years when they think they know everything, know they can do anything and want total independence from the folks (as we did). But finally, in the majority of cases, comes the realisation as John Donne wrote with classical sexism in, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

That model is how I chart the Aboriginal journey, (and please understand I’m not likening them to children: it’s just that this model is most easily explained by referring to kids). For most of the first two hundred years of our presence in this country, for a host of different reasons, Aboriginal people became, or were forced to become, dependent. They struggled to retain the traditional authority and responsibility that existed when they were in language groups living their nomadic existence. Then came a gradual move to counter-dependence. One example was in the Pilbara in the late 1940s with a strike by Aboriginal stockmen. I see that rebellious attitude still being enacted: for example, the recent occupation of Heirisson Island by Noongar people.

But I don’t see counter-dependence providing any long term solutions to anything. It certainly has a place in a change process, but not as the end point. Yet, apart from a few wise older Aboriginal people around the place, most Aboriginal people today are somewhere on the continuum between dependence and independence, with many, particularly the young generation, clustered around counter-dependence which for some has almost become a way of life.

But wise older people are talking up independence and moving forward a stage. For example, the term Noongar Nation is being used by a number of Noongar leaders. And it’s not about separating or clashing or competing with the current state and national structures or policies. It is to define a common Noongar identity among the different clan groups to begin the process of regenerating authority and responsibility: a common voice from a common base. Then there is the opportunity to move to interdependence from a position of strength with other national groups.

So a couple of summary points:

  • The debate around Australia Day is about cultural difference and different ways of knowing and doing. But for me, it is also part of progress over time to reconstruct the meaning and traditions of the day. Yes, a lot of what is or has been said is negative, a lot of it may be hard to take, but I see it as progress, because the topic is being raised, and being raised by formerly disadvantaged people who had struggled to maintain their authority and responsibility.
  • We can’t avoid the anger, conflict and political shit-throwing if we are ever to reach some sort of a resolution to the issue of celebrating this nation as a nation. Crap will happen without doubt. As I have learned through all my facilitation work, change never happens until shit happens. Conflict to me says there is readiness for change. If there is no conflict, nothing will change. I’m sure, as readers think back to a change process they were involved in, they will agree.

But let’s move on if you’re still with me, and not too boggle-brained.

I don’t know how many generations of my mob have lived in Australia, but I feel privileged to be an Australian. At the same time, I comprehend why and how my Aboriginal friends feel negatively about that term privileged, and I know it’s what drives me to keep working and facilitating to reach middle ground to enable us all to regard ourselves as privileged Australians.

So I argue that we need a short-term and a longer-term or fall back plan.

For me, the short term plan is about making some changes to what we are celebrating and when we do it. Yes, we need to celebrate that we are a nation, but let’s acknowledge there are two histories woven into the fabric of nationhood.

So one thing that must happen is to change the day on which nationhood is celebrated. Get away from Phillip landing at Botany Bay and pick another significant day and date. Perhaps it could be the day that states agreed to sign up to create a nation? Or what about the date of the 1967 Referendum? Then again, what about the date that Kevin Rudd made the formal apology to Aboriginal people? Any of these may help to create a joint, rather than British-based history.

The second thing I would change would be to have a flag reflecting both the British heritage and Indigenous heritages: retain the Union Jack and the Southern Cross, but with the Aboriginal flag incorporated somehow.

Those two things could be done through a referendum in the next year or so, or else, and this is my longer term plan, use the push for Australia to become a republic as the basis for change of flag, the date of Australia Day, finalizing changes to the constitution, and any other things that need to be sorted.

So I believe the Australia Day debate says we are on a very important journey that has the potential to reconcile past differences. But that will only happen if we accept both histories as having equally made this country what it is and made it the place I am proud to call home.