Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Twelve Months of Broken Promises Since Rudd's Apology to the Stolen Generations

Australia Day: a racist celebration

By Simon Butler
Source: Green Left Online, 4 February 2009

Members of Tasmania's Aboriginal community didn't mince their words about how they feel about the celebration of Australia Day.

"You stole our land, you stole our rights and we won't celebrate invasion day", the protesters chanted as they marched through the streets of Hobart. Symbolically, they carried three coffins with them to the steps of the state parliament on January 26.

The following day, the Hobart Mercury reported that the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre state secretary, Nala Mansell-McKenna, told the crowd that celebrating Australia Day on January 26 was undeniably racist.

She compared the offence many Indigenous people feel regarding Australia Day to the imaginable offence were Aboriginals to "celebrate" on Anzac Day.

According to the Mercury Mansell-McKenna said: "There can never be reconciliation between white and Aboriginal Australians while Australia Day is celebrated on January 26 … To us it marks the start of assimilation, land theft, murder, poisoning and death — how can any reasonable person celebrate that?"

Just minutes after he became the 2009 Australian of the Year, Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson used his first public address to also criticise the celebration of Australia Day. He said that for many Aboriginals January 26 is not a day for celebration but "a day of mourning" and "the day in which our world came crashing down".

Australia Day is marked as Invasion Day or Survival Day by many Aboriginal Australians and their supporters, Dodson pointed out. He called for a "national conversation" about changing the day to a more appropriate date. He also said the issue of compensation to the Stolen Generations still needs to be addressed — an option already dismissed by the federal ALP government.

The government hurried to rule out any idea of changes to Australia Day. "To our Indigenous leaders, and those who call for a change to our national day, let me say a simple, respectful but straightforward no", said PM Kevin Rudd on January 26, in reply to Dodson's speech.

A racist celebration

Worldwide, Australia is one of only two countries colonised by Europeans that celebrate its national day on the anniversary of white settlement. The other country is the apartheid state of Israel, whose national day coincides with the commencement of Israel's ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in 1948.

Australia has little to be proud of in maintaining January 26 as a national holiday. It marks the beginning of a brutal invasion and genocide carried out against the original inhabitants.

For decades, Australian authorities subjected Indigenous people to systematic discrimination and the theft of their land. These policies were considered justified on the patronising and racist assumption that Aboriginal people constituted an inferior, dying race.

In 1901, attorney-general and future prime minister Alfred Deakin even called for Aboriginals subjected to Australia's apartheid-like laws to be grateful: "if [Aboriginals] be a dying race, let us hope that in their last hours they will be able to recognise not simply the justice, but the generosity of the treatment which the white race, who are dispossessing them and entering into their heritage, are according them."

Abandoning January 26 as a national celebration would be a progressive step — part of a bigger campaign for full equality and justice for Australia's Indigenous people.

The racism associated with Australia Day is not only a thing of the past. It also plays a role in stoking racist nationalism among white Australians today. This year, hundreds of white youth rampaged in the Sydney suburb of Manly on January 26, targeting non-white shopkeepers, in their own, appalling assertion of "Aussie pride".

AAP's Justin Vallejo reported that the white rioters attacked and injured an 18-year-old Asian woman, a Sikh taxi driver and an Asian shopkeeper in scenes that had "the potential to resemble Cronulla Beach in 2005".

Nina Burridge, an academic at the University of Technology, witnessed the Manly riots. She ridiculed police suggestions that racism was not a factor in the rampage, telling the January 27 Sydney Morning Herald there was definitely "an underlying element of racism dressed up as nationalism".

In the weeks after the racist Cronulla riots in 2005 — involving hundreds of white Australians rampaging through the suburb indiscriminately attacking non-whites — the ABC's 7.30 Report interviewed some of the participants.

Being part of riots "was better than Australia Day", said one unrepentant racist. "I went home at 10 o'clock at night and my eyes were like this. I had the best time of my life. Not because we were there fighting Lebos, but just the atmosphere, you know. Everyone has had enough of them."

Broken promises

Along with its racist and nationalist associations, there is a further reason why the ALP government should move Australia Day. It was one of the election promises made at its 2007 national convention. The 2004 convention had also adopted this policy.

Chris Graham, from the National Indigenous Times, explained in a January 22 editorial that the ALP went into the 2007 election with a policy of implementing the recommendations of a report from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. One of those recommendations is to move Australia Day to a less offensive day.

Graham labelled Rudd's refusal to implement his own party's policy as consistent with his entire first year in office, "which is littered with broken promises to Aboriginal people". He listed some of these broken promises.

Before the election, Labor promised to boost funding to Aboriginal legal aid but actually cut funding in its first budget. Labor attacked the previous government for not bridging the Indigenous health gap, yet since taking office it too has failed to make up the funding shortfall.

In opposition, the ALP promised to revitalise Indigenous languages and endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In government, it has backed away from both of these things.

Labor professed to be critical of the Howard government's NT intervention and promised a review if elected. The review went ahead but Labor simply ignored the major recommendations: the intervention continues largely unchanged.

Rudd has also broken a pre-election pledge to respond comprehensively to the Bringing Them Home report into the Stolen Generations. A major recommendation of the report was compensation, yet as PM, Rudd has ruled out any compensation scheme.

On February 13, it will be 12 months since Rudd made the moving apology to the Stolen Generations, raising hopes of real change among many. The reality of his government's record since then led Graham to conclude: "Labor is the party that says one thing, and does another. It is the party that pretends to be the friend of the blackfella, but stabs him the back regardless of whether or not he's looking."


According to the January 27 NIT, Dodson has proposed February 13 — the anniversary of the apology — as one alternative date for Australia's national day. Mansell-McKenna has also raised the idea of shifting the holiday to that day.

Queensland Aboriginal leader and Socialist Alliance member Sam Watson also supports the call to change the date of Australia Day. According to another January 27 NIT report Watson argued: "It needs to be [changed] because January 26 is only the day in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived to set up the colony of New South Wales. It's got nothing to do with Aboriginal people or the nation of Australia as it stands today."

Watson's suggestion for an alternative date was June 3 — the day the Mabo decision recognising native title was handed down in 1992.

The January 27 Mercury also reported Tasmanian Aboriginal leader Michael Mansell has a third alternative proposal for moving Australia Day — the day should coincide with the future date when the government finally signs a treaty with Aboriginal people.

Another view is held by South Australian Aboriginal elder Aunty Josi Agius who argued that she doesn't believe Australia Day should be changed, but felt strongly that the government still had to do more to recognise the struggle of Indigenous people.

According to ABC Online, Aunty Josi said, "Australia Day is good for non-Aboriginal people and for us it's our survival day. Another day for Aboriginal people should be brought in, or the government should do something to recognise us."

Debate and discussion within and without the Indigenous community will widen in the context of Dodson's remarks. But this discussion must be combined with ongoing campaigns in solidarity with Indigenous people, taking up government attacks.

Watson told the ABC on January 26 that he hoped Dodson would continue to use his position to speak out for Indigenous rights. Many others will also need to speak out and take action.

Despite the apology, despite the rhetoric, despite the awarding of Australian of the Year to an Aboriginal leader … the Rudd government is systematically attacking the rights and past gains of Indigenous people.
Copyright 2009 Simon Butler

Native Rights News is making this material from Green Left Weekly available by permission of the author as expressed through the copyright policy statement of Green Left Weekly. This article is distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information. Distribution of this material is for research and educational purposes that will promote social and economic justice and benefit society.

Posted By Perry Chesnut, Editor NRN to Native Rights News at 2/03/2009 10:51:00 AM

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