Things Not To Say About Australia Day – A Call To Prime Minister Morrison To Not Pull The Convict Card

I am a seventh generation First and Second fleet survivor descendant. That my ancestors were able to endure exile from their homeland, the journey here under the most horrendous conditions imaginable, meet, then make a life and legacy together never ceases to amaze me. Brought here against their will, they suffered unspeakable abuses and conditions, prevailing to instate a sort of life in an inhospitable country defying the odds. I am proud to be their descendant. However, when it comes to Australia Day, I’m not wont to crack a beer and raise it high with cries of “STRAYA MATE!!!!” It’s a day of sombre remembrance for the sake of the complete and enduring generational and cultural catastrophe which was the empirical colonization of this place, and let’s face it, for the most part the devastation was borne by First Nations. We white people actually seem to have come out of it pretty well.

My pride in my predecessor’s mettle is uneasily tempered with the understanding they were participants – however unwitting or unwilling – in the travesty that was the tossing of England’s unwanted pillories onto supposedly barren shores as far away as they could sail them. These exiles could not know what lay ahead and were powerless to be anything else but complicit. But whatever power our forebears lacked before or on arrival, they still had fifty times more control over their destinies at the hands of the British than the Indigenous population of the time. However, and whenever, we white Australians came to be here, and whatever we suffered on the way, we do not get to discuss those circumstances in the same conversation as the consequences on First Nations people of white occupation. No, we do not get to do that, Mr Prime Minister.

As a person of British/Irish descent, I would not be here except for the injustice, oppression and colonialism thrust upon my forebears, not to mention whatever actions led them to be here. I fully know when it comes down to it, this is not my Country. This is not my place. I am connected to this land only by its grace and goodwill. It has accepted me, this Country, cherished and nurtured me as its own. I rue that my ilk and peer very often have not returned the favour.

One of my closest friends is Indigenous, a First Nations descendant. We’ve spoken many times about our cultural and societal histories and the ironic, complex issues which could conceivably cause conflict in our dialogue. But they don’t. They give cause for deep reflection, empathy, listening, respect and understanding. Without either of us ever articulating it we agree this is key to moving reconciliation forward. We have the will, believe in a way, and trust the gestures we make at this intersection may somehow become part of a collective re-imagining of the relationship between who we understand to be the invaders, and the invaded, and who the silent, invisible phantom is who stands in the corner of the room. As dissonance continues about what a day for Australia looks and feels like, the fact we didn’t colonise ourselves seems to strangely hardly ever arise, and perhaps we might give pause to whether it ever actually stopped. In all our conversations I know I cannot speak to her pain regarding the colonialist past of this country. It is for me to listen, learn, and allow deeper respect and understanding to flourish between us.

Today, our Prime Minister stated, in defense of Australia Day being a celebratory event, that “when those twelve ships turned up in Sydney, all those years ago, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either.” Firstly, let’s note they did not “turn up” in Sydney, like invited but forgetful dinner party guests who neglected to send their RSVP. The white occupiers dragged a dozen, sorry ships ashore after months at sea and deposited almost fifteen hundred diseased, depraved white humans smack bang in Warrane, Gadigal Country. It was a place with a name and a population way before it was named for the British home secretary of the time. It was known as Eora, as were the people who lived here. The name literally means “here” or “from this place”. One might say “I am Eora, and Eora is me”. Eora were in Country, and Country was in them. It was the centre of their being- their universe – without and within. This is startlingly, and shamefully, opposed to the British Government’s opinion this land was barren and devoid of human habitation. The British government knew about the great south land for many years, having heard glowing reports from botanist Joseph Banks, a prior visitor in 1770 with old mate James Cook. Banks also brought back some very pretty pictures of various exotica and anecdotes of how absolutely perfect it would be as the location for a lovely little colonial concentration camp, with white picket fences and all. But Banks was, frankly, full of shit. New Holland was in fact wild and tough, and did not suffer fools, not to mention being widely inhabited by a widespread and functioning society, already demarcated into nations with their own laws and culture. But thanks to the ambitious botanist’s glowing endorsement, and the impatience of authorities to be rid of their prisoners, the mission went ahead. Colonizers gonna colonize. Being on the opposite side of the world, and apparently empty, it seemed the perfect patch on which to shit England’s most (allegedly) abominable human refuse. Undoubtedly, if the original inhabitants knew what and who was coming, they may have expressed concerns, if not downright resistance. Mr Morrison, a great many of us feel that particular white arrogance, white ignorance and white occupation isn’t something to be especially proud of. It’s something to be apologizing for.

It may surprise Australians, particularly in light of his insensitive remarks, to learn Morrison himself is a descendant of First Fleet colonialists, descended from William Roberts, transported for stealing yarn. No doubt this legacy gives him some pride, as it does many of the descendants including myself.  But when our Prime Minister blithely retorts from a colonialist perspective, making the white invaders into the victims of the Australian story, and those invaders’ white victims into martyrs, something is very awry. There can be only one lens through which to view this tragic episode in our history. What was done, both to the convicts and to the Indigenous peoples, was wrong. And despite the fact our ancestors came here under duress, we as their descendants are not exonerated from the crimes against humanity which followed our being flung here. All of us who came here under an English flag, indentured by choice or force to a quest to vanquish both land and peoples by sheer force of our privileged, power-laden populace, are guilty by association.

My ancestors did not choose to come, but despite their valiant survival, they contributed to the oppression of First Nations peoples and the decimation of this fragile, foreboding land. It behooves us to feel some shame for this. If we refuse to feel in all its gravity any grudge born against us as white non-belongers, we only deepen that shame. That our chief political minister would stand up, without a shred of humility or recognition of his white privilege or his glaring colonialist apologism, uttering “all victims of British colonialism matter” is to take the cause of reconciliation back at least twenty years. Good for you, Mr Morrison, if outright denial makes you happy. But you were not given your office to make yourself happy, not even to vent your stale, pale male banter on camera for your NLP, WASP, GOP maaaaates. Your job is to lead this nation well, and all Australians, as best you can. You get paid to be the best Australian you can be and govern as such. It’s incumbent on you to be the Prime Minister we all need now and, in the future, whoever we are and whatever our survival story is – because when it comes to white, patriarchal colonialism, everyone has a survival story, and that’s a goddamn fact. You don’t get to stand up as our boss man in government and play the invaders and invaded off against each other. This is not about which party was hurt worse by white colonialism in the past. It’s about the impacts of white colonialism here and now and into the future, because despite how invisible it might be to white Australians, that colonialism is very much alive and well.

No, Mr Morrison, you do not speak for me when you declare all lives matter as concerns the invasion of Australia. This posture misses the very important point that someone chose to send white people here without asking if it was okay first. Someone decided the Indigenous civilization already in residence were not human and played them for fools. Someone decided sending what it considered to be its human garbage to the other side of the world, along with a patriarchal, racist militia, was a solution to economic and class-related crime in their own fucked up country and a jolly idea. Someone signed off on Australia as an alternative to prisons the Empire insisted they could not afford to build on their own corrupt territory. Someone decided this, and now it can’t be undecided. We do not get to compare our suffering as white occupiers to that of the civilization we decimated. Our grave responsibility is to work through the aftermath. No, it isn’t fair our ascendants came to be here, and it’s true the circumstances were unjust, but so was the indigenous genocide that ensued, the Stolen Generation, and the fact First Nations people were not acknowledged as human beings with rights by the Australian government until the year before I was born – 1967. That’s 179 years of patriarchal white politicians bleating bullshit about “all lives matter” all the time making sure great swathes of humanity didn’t get to be counted as having lives that mattered in the first place. Australia didn’t colonise itself. Someone did it, and whether white Australians like it or not, our presence represents a deep wounding of this place and its people. When white people elect to see through the lens of the colonial empire and it’s white victims, rather than healing our own ancestral wounds and proffering active empathy and support for Indigenous victims, we only further the insult we perpetrated against them in the first place.

When Mr Morrison awkwardly attempts to paint white victims of colonialism in this country as equally put upon as the original inhabitants, but he must appreciate, with humility and respect, this is not our card to pull. We may not deign to give commentary on the impacts of colonialism on white people in the same breath as the impacts for First Nations people. Why, Mr Morrison, would you continue the systematic dismissal of the pain of First Nations people, and further isolate them by naming white pain? The two conversations may well be conjoined at some juncture, but for fucks sake, this isn’t the way to go about it. Do not trophyise my wound as a generational victim of colonial oppression, and do not assume to compare it to the catastrophe we perpetrated on First Nations’, like these injuries were scones in a CWA bake-off competing for a ribbon. How dare you, sir? How dare you?

Our colonial past cannot he erased – it can only be healed, and the first step to healing is acknowledgement. We cannot help what we refuse to learn about or understand. We cannot reach where we withdraw empathy rather than extending it. Empathy does not say “what about me.” It says “I see you. I hear you. Despite the pain your pain causes me, whether I am to blame or otherwise, I will be here where you are. I will see things through your eyes, because I am willing to set my perspectives or defenses aside. I am present. I know I cannot expect trust where there is no vulnerability. I want to understand from your perspective. I do not expect forgiveness, and I do not ask for it. I ask only that you let me stay with you, because you’re wounded, and although I don’t have the power to heal you, I know it isn’t good for the wounded to be alone.” First Nations people need to know we as white Australians are invested in their healing and the restoration of their culture on their terms because the future of this country not only includes them, it simply will not exist without them. Always was, always will be.

Mr Morrison, at the risk of putting words in your mouth, I’m about to put words in your mouth. Here’s what you say whenever Australians decide to encompass the burgeoning movement of reconciliation, understanding, empathy and societal evolution by deciding not to use the term “Australia Day” or acknowledge January 26th as a cause for celebration. You say, “I think I speak for all the imported rabble chucked on First Nations soil for one reason or another when I say I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to the Elders both past and present. We are grateful every time we place our feet on this earth and stand under this southern sky. We are humbled to be here alongside you at this point in history. There is much to learn and much to forgive. Let us continue to work towards reconciliation between the people of this country, and a healing of the past with a view to the future. We have no right to ask for your forgiveness, and we thank you for your willingness to teach us and wait while we discard the wrong attitudes and right the harmful actions of the past. Thank you, unequivocally, in every way.”

There you go, Mr Prime Minister. Never let it be said our side of the dialogue wasn’t explicitly clear. It’s time you decided once and for all to remove yourself from a harmful and hurtful colonialist victim posture and took your place as the facilitator of reconciliation our country needs now and into the future.

Jo Hilder