26 January 2018

Australia Day - The problem is not the date

Yesterday my kids and I spent almost an hour hunched over, shuffling through tight spaces on the decks of the HMS Endeavour, an exact replica of Cook’s original ship that carried him into Stingray Harbour (now Botany Bay) on the 29th of April 1770.

We learned that the Endeavour was a second-hand coal carrier, purchased by the Royal Navy in 1768 and refitted for a scientific mission to search the seas for a fabled Terra Australis Incognita or "unknown southern land". Joseph Banks, the botanist who joined the expedition was not a seaman, but his passion for discovering new flora and fauna made the voyage an irresistible opportunity. He paid in today’s terms, about a million dollars to be on board.

The ship was clearly not built for comfort and as we disembarked I was filled with a real sense of wonder and admiration for those who sailed her. They faced the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean in an age where charts were more suggestions, ships were made of wood, medicine was basic and communication was what happened if you made it back.

It’s sad I think that the life of Cook, Banks, Arthur Phillip, Burke, Wills and other early explorers and pioneers have become so politicised of late. In St Kilda today stands a century old statue of Cook, now layered in pink paint, defaced by a vandal who is looking for someone to blame.

Now as I’ve already written in older posts, I am an advocate for a substantive and meaningful constitutional recognition of our Indigenous peoples. I also believe the first history and culture lessons our children should be learning is our indigenous history and culture, and we should take pride in our nation having the oldest continuous living culture on the earth. Our story must also remind us of the gross injustices that followed colonisation and we need to keep recognising and responding to the ongoing need to provide equity and respect to indigenous people and culture.

But changing the date of Australia day, really? “Invasion day” if there was one was not the 26th of January. Cook arrived at Kurnell on the 29th April 1770 and Arthur Phillip arrived with the first fleet at the same location on the 18th of January 1788 and the formal establishment of a colony by Phillip did not take place till the 7th of February the same year. All that trivia to say that the arrival date is all a matter of interpretation.

For me the problem is not the date, but the modern bias in our national story rather than a celebration of our greater story - which is not hundreds of years old but thousands of years old. Today we should all pause for more than a moment to consider the past, both our indigenous peoples and our colonial pioneers. But let’s not feel guilty for also celebrating the immense privilege it is to live in Australia today - not perfect, but pretty darn great. C’mon people, travel a bit and you realise just how blessed we are.

But also, it seems selfish to just celebrate how our nation is good for us. I’m challenged to consider how such privilege and prosperity propels us into greater generosity toward people and problems both at home and abroad.

So today might we remember our past, be thankful for our present and thereby be moved toward a more generous future personally, and as a nation.