“To change the date of Australia Day would be to deny the complexity of our national story and seek to remodel our national identity on an overly simplistic narrative of shame that denies all that we have achieved together throughout our history”. – Owen Laffin
“Australia Day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate all of the things we’ve achieved.” – Tony Abbott
Whichever way you choose to look at it, everything changed for Aboriginal peoples on January 26, 1788.
Their land was stolen from them on that day, and more of it would continue to be stolen for generations to come.
The first fighting in what would become known as the Frontier Wars took place several months after the landing of the First Fleet. That fighting would continue for another 146 years, resulting in the deaths of at least 20,000 indigenous Australians (some estimates go much higher) and around 2,000 Europeans.
The loss of land meant the loss of Aboriginals’ traditional hunting grounds, which led to their starvation. And the introduction of European diseases like smallpox, the common cold, flu, measles, venereal diseases and tuberculosis, hitherto unknown by Aboriginal peoples, had an even more devastating effect. Smallpox alone is estimated to have halved the Aboriginal population of eastern Australia, even before settlers crossed the Great Dividing Range and moved west to steal more land.
Before January 26, 1788, more than 250 Aboriginal languages existed in Australia. Today, only 60 of them are still considered healthy. Your language is the primary means of passing on cultural knowledge, so the loss of a language means the loss of culture, and of connection to ancestors.
We all now know that between 1905 and 1969, the Aboriginal Protection Board forcibly removed what were referred to as “half-caste” children from their families, known as the Stolen Generations. But did you know that from the late 1800s until the 1970s Aboriginal workers were basically enslaved labor, denied access to their wages which in many cases were simply stolen by corrupt officials?
During that period, Aboriginal people who worked for white people did not receive their wages directly. Their earnings were paid to the Aboriginal Protection Board, who “administered” their finances. The employers themselves might dole out tiny amounts of “pocket money” to their Aboriginal workers, but that was it.
For example, in Queensland, an Aboriginal stockman named Jubilee Jackson worked for 60 years from the age of ten, and the only money he ever received was a small amount of pocket money at rodeo time. He and his family were told the rest was held in a trust account. But when he died in 1967 there was barely $100 in his government controlled account.
It is estimated that the state of Queensland alone owes around $500 million to Aboriginal people, with some individuals owed close to half a million dollars in today’s terms.
Gary Highland, the national director for Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, has said,
When I was in school, I was told that Australia developed on the sheep’s back. I now know that it developed on the backs of thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children.
I heard that line about the sheep’s back when I was a kid too. I never heard about Jubilee Jackson’s drained bank account though.
Over nearly a 100 years, monies were skimmed out of Aboriginals’ accounts, including child endowments and benefits, savings, inheritances, soldiers’ pay, aged or invalid pensions, and workers’ compensation payouts.
In Victoria, there is evidence that the Aboriginal Protection Board actually withheld wages as punishment to Aboriginal workers.
But wait, it gets worse.
The government even misappropriated Aboriginal wages to cover the costs of removing Aboriginal children from their families. Did you get that? Aboriginal workers were unwittingly paying for the removal of their own children.
Not only did this dreadful injustice make the Australian farming sector very wealthy, it locked Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into an unending cycle of poverty. Marjorie Woodrow, an Aboriginal stolen wages claimant, said, “We could have had our own homes from the wage we are owed, and had the ability to set things up for our children. It breaks your heart to see our children still struggling.”
By denying them their rightful wages, we have entrenched intergenerational poverty, making it impossible for many Aboriginal people break out of the stereotype of being welfare-dependent. Journalist, Kristie Smith writes, “The majority of Australians have yet to acknowledge the evident link between settlement life, stolen wages and the lack of education and employment in today’s society.”
Returning to the quotes I began with, I was challenged by Owen Laffin’s suggestion that changing the date of Australia Day from January 26 would be to “deny the complexity of our national story and seek to remodel our national identity as on an overly simplistic narrative of shame that denies all that we have achieved together throughout our history”. I understand he’s arguing for a more nuanced and sophisticated reading of history, but the very thing we have “achieved together throughout our history” has been accomplished on land stolen from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and funded by their stolen wages.
That’s what makes the former Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott’s comments this week so galling when he said,
What happened on the 26th of January 1788 was on balance, for everyone – Aboriginal people included – a good thing because it brought Western civilisation to this country, it brought Australia into the modern world.
A good thing? What we did has not only left Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders without land, without language, and without wages, but turned them into the most incarcerated people in the world, with a mortality rate 10-17 years less than other Australians. I wouldn’t have thought that pointing this out contributed to a “simplistic narrative of shame” at all. In actual fact, there is plenty to be ashamed of.
And yet, many Australians consider a call to change the date of Australia Day as merely a confection of trendy inner city lefties or an example of that dreaded “political correctness”. But defending January 26 as the date of Australia Day without knowing the price Aboriginal peoples paid to build this nation is the height of ignorance.
Why is it so difficult to see how offensive it is to force indigenous Australians to just get over the past, to smile along with us on January 26, to listen to an Australian music countdown, to enjoy the annual lamb ad, and to celebrate “all of the things we’ve achieved”?