The decision by two Melbourne councils to stop referring to 26 January as Australia Day and to replace their usual citizenship ceremony with an event to mark the “loss of Indigenous culture” has prompted a swift conservative backlash.
Representatives of the council declared the day to be one of mourning rather than celebration for Indigenous people. Annette Xiberras, Wurundjeri elder and a member of Yarra council’s Aboriginal advisory group, said that celebrating Australia Day is, to Indigenous people, like celebrating the Holocaust: “Would you ask the Jewish people to celebrate Hitler’s birthday? What happened to my people is equivalent. We had women raped, children sold into slavery and the Wurundjeri people got down to two people”.
The annual orgy of nationalist celebration on 26 January operates as a yearly proclamation of support for the nature and manner of European colonisation. It cannot be anything else.
Malcolm Turnbull said on the floor of parliament: “An attack on Australia Day is a repudiation of the values the day celebrates: freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity”. This presentation of Australian nationalism both erases the history of racist dispossession that accompanied European arrival and denies the ongoing racism of Australian capitalism today.
William Faulkner’s aphorism couldn’t be more apt: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”. Australia is built not only on the dispossession of Indigenous people, but also on the labour of oppressed, underpaid migrants. It is a country that locks up those fleeing horror in concentration camps in a gulag archipelago to the north. It is a country that wages wars in the Middle East and justifies them by vilifying Muslims and Arabs. The purpose of Australian nationalism is to convince ordinary people of the lie that Australia is one, indivisible, fair and free. This history and these racist realities are manifest in the fluttering of the Australian flag on 26 January.
So this isn’t an arcane historical question. It reflects a debate about Australian society today. To acknowledge the racist foundations on which Australia rests raises questions about the current moment. That is why the right have been apoplectic. Not only did Turnbull devote a whole speech in parliament to it, but fascists in Melbourne stormed a meeting of the Yarra council to declare their hostility.
Members of the Party for Freedom and their supporters rushed the council meeting in Richmond. They chanted “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” and “Love it or leave it!” One, in a moment of magnificent cognitive dissonance, started yelling “Aboriginal and white people are the true Australians. Everyone else should go back to where they came from!”
The fact that both Turnbull and the fascist right are in furious agreement over this issue should give us pause for thought. The prime minister and open fascists and neo-Nazis are in lock step.
Australian nationalism is the cloak our rulers drape themselves in when they want to justify a racist and deeply unequal society. For this reason and more, we should fully support the Darebin and Yarra councils in their stand.