At the 1968 Boyer Lecture, anthropologist WEH Stanner coined the phrase ‘great Australian silence’ to describe Australia’s ignorance of its history of massacres and dispossession. ‘What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views,’ he said, ‘turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.’
Looking at the protests that marked Australia Day this year, it might seem as if the silence has been dispelled. Invasion Day rallies were held across the nation to proclaim that the 26 January is a day of mourning, not celebration; a day on which a country was stolen, not born. This isn’t just a matter of ‘setting the record straight’. Colonisation is a historical fact, but it manifests in the present. The disadvantage suffered by Aboriginal Australia can only be meaningfully understood in light of the violent past which Stanner strove to draw attention to.
Still, over a month has passed since Australia Day, and Aboriginal affairs are once again receding into the horizon. The Closing the Gap Report attracted little popular attention, despite demonstrating that progress towards equality between white and black Australia remains stuck in the mud in five out of seven areas, including life expectancy.
There is evidently something wrong with our discourse on Aboriginal affairs, if it is possible for progressive individuals to unite in condemnation of colonialism on Australia Day, and go back to ignoring its actual effects on the January 27. At this point, it is useful to look at what purposes Australia Day has come to serve for white progressives. These kinds of inquiry can be made without engaging in intra-left conflict. The only alternative is to succumb to a false assurance that the left is sufficiently engaged with Aboriginal affairs, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Firstly, Australia Day provides an opportunity for white progressives to reach a kind of peace with history through acts of public mourning. The increasing popularity of Invasion Day rallies provides an excellent example of this phenomenon. These rallies pose dangerous questions to white Australia, questions of sovereignty and collective guilt. But the problem with annual gestures is they grant a license to ignore problems of race for the remainder of the year. And for many Aboriginal people, especially those without my own middle-class privileges, every day is Invasion Day: a state of undeclared conflict.
More troublingly, the debate around Australia Day is now shaped by signifiers of class, and especially taste. See this piece from SBS’s Backburner, lampooning those who ‘smash tinnies’, wear flags, and listen to the Hottest 100. Sadly, these aren’t the people who actually run Australia, easy though they are to denigrate. As Louis CK so eloquently put it, ‘nobody defends white trash.’
Or consider the furore surrounding the Australia Day lamb ad. It was a strange controversy, in that it was difficult to see precisely what angered people so much. Was it the mere reference to Australia Day? The use of the word ‘boomerang’? The denigration of veganism? Pathetic, sure, but fairly innocuous. What really offended so many Australians was that the ad dared to show them the country they desperately don’t want to belong to: a macho backwater where eating a particular kind of meat is somehow elevated to a national duty.
The curious outcome of all of this is that, for white progressives, Australia Day has regained the dimensions of a secular holiday with symbolic and communal functions. It allows them to expiate their guilt about colonialism in a controlled manner, and contest white Australian identity against perceived boganism. But Aboriginal people have no actual presence in this cultural tug of war.
The burgeoning emphasis on Australia Day corresponds to a missed opportunity in the republic debate. Australia Day has become the key means by which nationhood is considered in relation to Aboriginal Australia. As a result, nationhood is only ever considered pessimistically; that is, because Australia is founded on an illegal exercise of English power, Aboriginal people are alienated from Australia.
Could a republic alter this dynamic? Without the continuous insult of an English head of state, the possibility of a reconciled nation emerges. Currently, the idea of Australia is compromised not only for Aboriginal people, but also for white Australians who recognise the historical crimes perpetrated in the Crown’s name. It would be naive to believe a republic will, in itself, fix the problems for Aboriginal Australia. But it’s short-sighted to think it has no bearing on them.
The danger does remain that a republic might simply result in Australia inaugurating a new cult of forgetfulness around the pre-republican past. For this reason, the republic must not be taken as, in any sense, clearing a stain from the nation’s conscience. The republic entails accepting responsibility as a nation, not erasing it.
At present, however, the republic debate is seen as fusty and rather irrelevant, the province of politics nerds and decrepit monarchists. The challenge is to enliven it. And in order to do so, we must recognise that it marks a vital symbolic step beyond the events of 26 January 1788.