January 26 continues to divide the nation

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Eviction notice served on Captain Cook's cottage, Melbourne (Image via @akaWACA)

Once again, January 26 has become a rallying point for white supremacists and the source of irritation for millions of Australians.

The Australian flag itself has been debased by fascists and their supporters, waving it around and wearing it around their shoulders, as though it just belongs to them.

The Cronulla race riot of 2005 did profound damage to the flag, exacerbated by the denialist comments of the then Prime Minister John Howard:

I believe yesterday's behaviour was completely unacceptable but I'm not going to put a general tag ofracism on the Australian community...

... I think it's a term that is flung around sometimes carelessly and I'm simply not going to do so.

That the organisers of the Australia Day Big Day Out in 2007 asked people not to bring the Australian flag as it was used by white supremacists to create hatred, indicates the extent to which the Cronulla riot harmed its image.

The attempt by the dying Coalition Government to win support by upping the divisive stakes over January 26 seems to have faltered, given the thousands of Australians who marked the day with participation in Invasion Day rallies in all major cities.

This year, the Federal Government denied the right of local governments to hold citizenship ceremonies on alternative dates, stripping those councils which refused to celebrate January 26 of the right to hold such ceremonies at all.

In a rather ill-judged attempt to boost colonial nostalgia, PM Scott Morrison – who represents Cronulla as the Member for Cook – also proclaimed the allocation of $6.7 million for a special commemorative voyage around the continent, to commemorate 250 years since Captain Cook "circumnavigated" the land for the British Crown.

That it was Matthew Flinders and Bungaree who completed this circumnavigation, not Cook, did not bother our leader.

There is a consensus on the right wing of politics that January 26 is central to the character of Australia. Back in 2014, then PM Tony Abbott described the arrival of the First Fleet as “the defining moment in the history” of Australia and when it became part of the “modern world".

That he is of English background and may be unacquainted with our Australian history – of the 60,000 years of tradition and culture of our hundreds of First Nations – might excuse his ignorance to some extent, but it is an ignorance shared by many on the conservative side of politics.

There has long been an obsession amongst some British colonial settlers to “keep Australia white”.

After the devastation of the First World War, with the loss of some 60,000 men, Australia faced a bleak future. The “Motherland” of colonial Australia, Great Britain, also feared for its future.

The Royal Colonial Institute sent the famous author Sir Henry Rider Haggard to Australia in 1916 to seek support for the future emigration of soldiers, for it was feared that when the men returned from the war, 'there would be a great industrial disturbance', civil unrest and emigration of thousands out of the empire to the USA.

The Royal Colonial Institute had already won support for the future emigration of soldiers to South Africa and Rhodesia, aimed at whitening the empire.

According to Haggard:

'The Empire [was] not over-populated with white folk. In fact, it [was] greatly under-populated. That being so, it is surely highly desirable that at any sacrifice… the Empire should attempt to retain the sons who have fought for her.'

At the same time that this openly white supremacist imperial policy was being developed, the attitude to the First Nations people was appalling.

Indigenous Australians who had fought for Australia during the war were denied the right to Soldier Settlement farms, but Aboriginal mission stations were carved up to provide land for farms for white soldiers.

As late as 1929, there were reports of the murders of Indigenous Australians in the outback by white pastoralists and their henchmen. The Federal Board of Inquiry constituted to inquire into several such shootings in 1928, consisted of a police magistrate, a police inspector and the government resident of the district. No independent person was appointed, despite demands from some churches. No lawyer was allowed to appear on behalf of the Indigenous people.

The Board relied heavily upon the word of “reputable settlers” who were present at the shootings and had apparently taken part — one admitting he had fired eight or nine times at the Aborigines.

The Australian Board of Missions, a church body, in a resolution sent to Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, expressed its dissatisfaction with both the composition of the Board and its findings:

'Among the causes given for the dissatisfaction of the Aborigines there had been no reference to injustice and wrongdoing on the part of any whites.'

Indeed one of the causes of dissatisfaction, according to the Board of Inquiry was:

'unattached missionaries wandering from place to place, having no knowledge of Blacks and their customs and teaching a doctrine of equality'. 

This was the only wrongdoing of whites that came up.

The growing size of Invasion Day rallies this year and the willingness of so many organisations and leading citizens to strongly support the First Nations stance on January 26, combined with the obvious desperation of the Morrison Government to create division on the issue, indicate that the ill-chosen date will not survive much longer.

Bilal Cleland is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

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