Australia Opinion

Wren's week: Australia must reckon with its ugly history

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Scott Morrison's Government has made no apologies for the pain caused by Australia Day (image by Dan Jensen)

Next Tuesday is Australia Day, a vexed day on the calendar.

No doubt Australia needs a national day, all countries have them. But 26 January is problematic. It is, of course, the day in 1788 that the first British settlement fleet sailed into Port Jackson, establishing the town of Sydney.

On the other side of the ledger, it’s seen as Invasion Day, the day an uninvited people took land and resources by force from the Indigenous people of the area (the Eora first nation). Disease, dispossession, genocide and cultural degradation followed. It was a pattern that established itself across the continent as more European settlers followed.

Through 21st Century eyes, it was clearly an invasion and we modern European Australians must not forget that. The Georgian and Victorian-era British, of course, came from a culture of invasion. The original indigenous Britons (Celts and Picts) had in turn been invaded over the centuries by Romans, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and Normans. As descendants of invaders and conquered peoples, subconsciously and culturally, they saw nothing wrong with what they were doing.

Australia was not alone in this. British settlers had been doing much the same for centuries in their American, African and Asian colonies. Only in New Zealand did the Indigenous population, the Maori, fight back so successfully that the British were forced to concede a treaty

The date of 26 of January is also problematic for Australians outside of NSW. The date was the day of the founding of the colony of NSW, not any of the other states. The next oldest Australian colony is Tasmania, established again by British invaders on 20 February 1804. 

We must not forget that Australia as a modern nation did not come into existence until 1 January 1901, when the Australian colonies formed the Federation we now know as the Commonwealth of Australia.

Prior to that date, Australia was a geographical reference to a continental landmass, not a political designation. By rights, 1 January should be the Australian National Day, but we already have a public holiday that day so such a change simply would not be acceptable to Australians who love their public holidays.

We must also remember that most of the European settlers in that first fleet really didn’t want to be in the colony of NSW either. They too were largely there under duress, both convicts and troops. It wasn’t an easy posting. So why do we commemorate it?

The solution of course will arise when Australia does eventually and inevitably become a republic. The day that happens will be the new Australia Day: Republic Day and legislators must choose the day carefully. Almost any day other than 26 January will suit. I personally think the most appropriate day for Australia to become a republic would be the 3 December, the anniversary of Eureka Rebellion in 1854 and the birthplace of Australian democracy.

This week we also saw Scott Morrison commence what looked like an early election campaign tour of Northern and outback Queensland. It was full of empty rhetoric and his usual naff photo ops in the uniform adopted by all politicians, of all stripes when in the outback: RM Williams boots and moleskins, chambray shirt and a hat (usually an Akubra, but Trumpist Morrison prefers baseball caps).

This area of Australia should be Coalition heartland and the fact that he is there shoring up votes is an indication that internal polling may not be as healthy as most of us expect. Many of the Northern Queensland electorates are susceptible to high profile local conservative independents and Labor candidates in a couple of the bigger towns (Mackay and Townsville, for example).

On JobKeeper, Morrison did make one disturbing comment while in Cairns, a city that has been badly affected by the coronavirus-induced decline in tourism. When asked about aregionalised JobKeeper type scheme” by a journalist (it was possibly a Dorothy-Dixer from a tame Murdoch journalist), he would not commit to or deny it.

However, such a scheme if it were to gain traction, has all the hallmarks of a Sports Rorts scheme on steroids. It could see Morrison pick marginal electorates under the guise of a downfall in tourism and effectively hand taxpayers’ money straight to voters under the guise of a “wages subsidy”. Based on his past form, this is something Morrison would love to do if he thought he could get away with it. 

And finally, a word on the Australian Open tennis. In my view, this should not have gone ahead. The risk of bringing COVID-19 into Australia in bigger numbers is simply too great. We have also seen many of the players make complete fools of themselves with the way they are objecting to their quarantine conditions.

Many of them come from countries which have been ravaged by COVID-19. Surely these self-entitled players know the risks the virus poses. It’s unlikely we will see other grand slam events this year. They really should be happy with the fact that Australia is in a position where we can host the tournament. Let’s not forget that every competitor makes a substantial amount of money even if they lose in the first round.

14 days quarantine should be a small price to pay for the privilege of competing.

The upside is the Australian Open is paying for all the quarantine costs. At the end of the tournament, Victoria will have three (or more) fully operational quarantine hotels with fully trained staff ready to go, to help with the repatriation of the tens of thousands of stranded Australians. Then the Morrison Government will need to step up and subsidise repatriation flights.

It is notable that the Government has no problem spending tens of millions incarcerating the Biloela family on Christmas island, but struggles to find the money to pay for repatriation flight. 

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