June 3, 2012 5 Comments
“I didn’t do it. I wasn’t alive back then. Why should I be expected to care?”
Recently I was sharing with some students the truth that Australia’s history is littered with episodes of racism against our first Australians. Declaring our land ‘terra nullius’ (no-one’s land) when the English discovered it was only the beginning. At Federation our indigenous Australians were deliberately excluded from the census and from even being subject to Federal Laws. The following year most Aborigines were excluded from voting too (unless they were already enrolled). Then there was the restrictions placed on freedom of movement – pretty much every ‘Boundary Road’ in Australia was originally a road that indigenous people were not allowed to cross - and the fact that legitimate wages earned were often taken away by employers and spent on Aborigine’s behalf. In some states Aborigines could not marry without permission from the government. In other states they were not permitted to own their land or choose where they lived. Also, while all other citizens had the pension and maternity allowance enfranchised between 1908 and 1912, Aboriginals did not.
While much has now changed, nevertheless, for each of these things I feel deep regret.
But not everybody does.
Some fellow Australians believe that because these were the actions of people from a bygone era it is not right that their descendants feel any remorse. After all, we today did not commit nor agree with these acts.
Let me be clear: I think this is a wholly defensible position. If you are Australian, you do not have to be ashamed of our racist past. But understand, refusing shame means you must also forfeit pride.
As for me, while I am sorry for some episodes in Australia’s history, I am also deeply proud of my country. We were one of the first to award women’s suffrage. We eradicated smallpox and we brought penicillin to the world. We’re the country of the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, the Big Pineapple and the Snowy Mountain Scheme. Ours is Don Bradman, Herb Elliot and Caroline Chisolm. We believe class is for school rooms, and hearts are for sleaves. We love football so much we have three versions of it, and none of them involve a round ball. We died at Gallipoli, we charged at Beersheba, we bled at Kokoda. And over and over we have proven that you don’t need to be a big country to be a great one.
See that’s the thing about all history: it has moments of both heroism and villainy, victory and indignity. And if you truly love your country, and want to identify with its past, then you have to accept both or none. To do otherwise is to be an arrogant hypocrite – and there are few things more unAustralian than that!
Thus, as we today celebrate 20 years since the Mabo judgement – a day where native title was acknowledged as real – remember that it’s completely fine to wave the Aussie flag while wearing a black armband. Indeed, it’s about as honest as you can get. At least, that’s the vibe of the thing I’m getting.