The emotions arose for many reasons, but distill into this: No matter how different we look or what languages we speak, Australia changes everyone it touches. While some of us come from great privilege and others are born of lack, we weather an incredible array of hardship. And when supported by others, we see that we can shine, thrive and open our hearts further. This is the foundation story of Australia and when shared, it embraces all peoples and instills us with joy and a sense of shared destiny and identity.
January 26 is a fraught date. It marks the day that a fleet of ships full of prisoners and armed guards arrived in 1788 to occupy the continent and inadvertently found modern Australia. The British didn’t ask permission, no one ever has and none has ever been granted. It’s no wonder that many Aboriginal Australians call the 26th of January Invasion Day while others seek to “Change the Date.”
My first tears of sorrow rolled out at the Yabun Festival, Australia’s largest gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I wandered by a booth staffed by the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation. A vibrant young man offered an enthusiastic greeting and told me of me of their mission: They support men who as babies and kids had been kidnapped by government agents and forcibly re-homed with white settler parents. Their original identities erased, names changed, backgrounds obliterated by lies. These victims of the Stolen Generations, many now in their 60s, some with not much longer to live, will soon travel the country on a speaking tour, setting the record straight by sharing their stories with today’s generation of school kids. They’re working to give kids a sense of shared identity. That they matter. This comes at a time when young kids are killing themselves in alarming numbers.
I cried joyous tears at the inclusiveness I witnessed in the Corroboree ground, a sand-filled area where story is told through dance, song and music. I saw an ochered toddler barely able to walk firmly holding his clap sticks while his elders danced around him no matter where he wandered. Moments before, his sisters, only a couple years older, executed complex choreography grounded in the ancient wisdom of a culture that has thrived for more than 60,000 years.
Sitting on that ground under the patchy shade of a towering fig tree, I realised what can happen when I just sit and listen. And I wondered what I would be witnessing today if some 232 years ago, on January 26th, ship loads of British soldiers and “convicts’ would have arrived on these shores and just sat and listened. I imagined them coming, seeking answers. “Please. Take us in,” they’d plead. “We’ve gone wrong, we’ve fouled our homes and lost our way. Can you teach us how to live here amongst you?”
Instead, the British imposed their iron will and within a decade, the water that once ran clear though the Tank Stream at Sydney Cove was so foul that convicts working under force had encased it in stone.
Australians love a show of force. And we do love our rules. I was reminded of that again at Yabun. I was looking for a tap to fill my water bottle and spied one on the side of a barbecue. It was not an official ‘Sydney Water’ filling station and as I approached, a woman asked if it was okay to fill her bottle too. “Of course,” I said. “If you weren’t allowed,” I assured her, “there would be a sign. We Australians love our signs. We love our rules and we’d tell you that fines apply.” She was from somewhere in Latin America and couldn’t grasp why Australia seems so bent on always threatening people for minor transgressions. “Why are the signs always so negative,” she asked. “Why don’t they put it in a more kind way?”
The answer didn’t come till we parted ways, but it is the answer I have for a lot of things here: What do you expect? When you found a nation as a prison camp, you’re going to have a few authoritarian tendencies.
That’s why the bushfire crisis got out of hand. Last year, fire experts from around the nation joined together to warn the Prime Minister. They were seeing a confluence of catastrophic conditions, exacerbated by climate change and drought. They wanted to warn him but he didn’t take the meeting. He’s not much of a listener to experts. That seems to be a trait among his brand of pentecostals.
Scott Morrison was elected last May, continuing a reign of inward-focussed, ‘she’ll be right’ government bent on inculcating citizens with the Americanised virtues of ‘small’ government and tax cuts for the rich. Never mind the example of America with its deepening income disparity, class division and desperation.
Let’s just ignore the fact that suicides are increasing, prolonged drought is crushing rural communities, record numbers of aboriginal people are imprisoned for minor offences, coal company executives are setting government policy (apparently our leaders do listen to some) and uncontrollable bush-fires have ravaged the land, its animals and people. For the first time in living memory, it seems luck may be turning bad here for the Lucky Country.
But don’t come crying to the first Australians. They’ve spent much of the the last two centuries just trying to be considered human. Their request to have a voice in parliament was rejected out of hand by a recent government and while our leaders spend a half-billion dollars expanding the Australian War Memorial there’s scant acknowledgment of the frontier wars where for more than a hundred years, Aboriginal people were rounded up and blithely murdered as though they were agricultural pests, best treated with disposal. In spite of that treatment, they still retain knowledge relevant to caring for the land, if only the powerful would listen.
As I write this, the 27th of January is the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Germany has chosen to fully embrace its Holocaust history as part of its national story. As Australia looks forward, our Prime Minister has endorsed and financed a plan to sail a replica of James Cook’s ship Endeavour around Australia, to mark 250 years ago when Cook circumnavigated the continent. Of course, Cook never circumnavigated Australia, he only explored the East Coast and after calling the event a re-enactment, Morrison clarified that he meant ‘retracing’ Cook’s course. It’s not for nothing the last decade was dubbed the decade of denial. If denial was an olympic sport, we’d be punching way above our weight.
I’m willing to grant people the chance to make mistakes and offer clarifications, but Morrison fails time and again to adhere to historical accuracy. He seems to live in his own narrow room of denial; constantly making the mistake of believing his own public relations, apparently listening only to himself. But history matters and so do words. Scomo, a nickname he gave himself in an attempt to come across as more approachable, appears unwilling to separate what he believes from what is real.
While Australia was burning, Morrison, aka Smoko, took a holiday to Hawaii. His staff went to great effort to keep his venture secret, even misdirecting media inquiries, but eventually the shouting became too loud to ignore and he had to return early, claiming he was coming back to ease the anxiety of a public who he claimed was worried because he wasn’t ‘there for us.’
While he claimed his presence wasn’t important because he’s not one ‘holding a hose,’ he also claimed to remember his summers as a child were similarly marred by bushfires. This came as experts noted these fires were unprecedented, yet Sooty continued to minimise, deflect, spin and deny.
That left Australian citizens to fill the vacuum. Those who weren’t holding hoses banded together to donate. In three days, comedian Celeste Barber raised $30 million for bushfire help. While citizens stepped up, many of us looked wistfully at New Zealand, where Jacinda Ardern showed us what leadership in time of crisis could look like.
It should come as no surprise then that Scotty from Marketing wasn’t mentioned during at the state-sponsored Australia Day Live 2020 celebration held on the steps of Sydney Opera House. In a two-hour event notable for its inclusiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, his face only appeared incidentally on video shot the day before at the Australian of the Year awards.
The minister has gone underground, practically unseen during celebrations created to build unity across the nation. He’s done so at the same time his Minister for Sport was caught sodomising one of the nation’s most sacred of cows, the community sports grants. Someone worked out that minister intervened to make sure the grants went to electoral districts that favoured her party’s re-election.
Last night’s top PR job was filled by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, herself a second generation immigrant, granddaughter of Armenian’s orphaned in the Armenian Genocide. And fair enough that Morrison should be relegated to obscurity. The celebrations were paid from the New South Wales budget and when the state was burning, the PM tried to wash his hands of responsibility, saying firefighting is a state affair.
Tears came again there on the Opera House steps as Aboriginal performers Isaiah Firebrace and William Barton were the first faces broadcast, opening the show with I Am Australian. With them, we traveled the country, to Western Australia and Queensland and back to Yvonne Weldon, standing on the shore in Sydney. “You are welcome,” she said. It was our Welcome to Country.
Australia Day is important to many of us immigrants. Four years ago, I took my oath of citizenship. I now call myself Australian. And I am also American. And while our government continues to vilify and persecute many worthy immigrants, the policies carried out in our name serve as a reminder about how privileged some of us have been to avoid the torture camps we are forced to support on Manus Island and Nauru. With our tax dollars, we encase our government’s putrid policies behind barbed wire and bureaucracy. It’s a bitter pill.
Every nation has its skeletons. America’s treatment of Native Americans helped write the manual for the British takeover of Australia and Apartheid policy in South Africa. And as an American, I feel deeply the sense of shame inflicted on the first nations and African slaves as well as the institutionalised racism that continues to destroy poor communities, depriving people of the justice required to just live.
I cried Wednesday at the premier of Just Mercy, the story of Bryan Stevenson, an African American lawyer from my home state of Delaware who spent 40 years confronting the wrongs of Alabama’s justice system. He runs the Equal Justice Initiative and has created a museum and memorial to confront the legacy of racial terrorism.
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” he said. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
Stories like his fill me with pride because they exemplify values of justice, equality and fairness. I’m patriotic about America. And I thought those feelings were about being American. Last night though, I realised they are not. They are about being human. They are universal, felt anytime, whenever I witness people getting a fair go.
These feelings come to the fore as the United States decides whether whether right and wrong matters. Citizens elected a monster and those with the power to hold him accountable have fallen victim to his bullying and are enabling him. The light is fading from that beacon on the hill and we’re seeing the republic crumble. Perhaps that is another reason I cried. I am in mourning, standing by as fires of greed and ego consume the place I called home.
My last tears fell when the Kari Singers performed Advance Australia Fair. I don’t like this song, but as I attempted to sing my national anthem, a lump filled my throat. The anthem can’t just be conveniently ignored like the Prime Minister was. So someone created a work around. The lump reappeared as the choir sang in Dharawal.
That’s what Australia does. Like a magic spell, Australia changes everything it touches and everyone who touches it. “Australia is not just a country,” Christine Anu said from the stage early in the show. “It’s a spirit, it’s an attitude.”
I’ve always been sceptical of national celebrations because most countries like to gloss over the hard bits. People don’t like to discuss lynchings, mass murder or genocide, especially when it was done by their forebears, even more so when they directly benefit from the unjust legacy. “That was the past,” they like to say. “Move on.” But we know the legacy of intergenerational trauma doesn’t just move on. It remains in our genetic code and until addressed, becomes our national coda.
That’s the message the surviving uncles of Kinchela are delivering. It’s the message Germany teaches of the Holocaust. It’s the legacy that Bryan Stevenson challenges when the Equal Justice Initiative opens a slavery museum in Montgomery Alabama. So long as we remain in denial of our story, the shadows will continue to haunt us. Shame hides in secrecy and its time to live with the shame.
This will be my 13th year in Australia and I didn’t expect to have such a good time yesterday. Walking down the Opera House steps at the end of the show, we ran into Jeremy Fernandez, himself a migrant from Malaysia. As host of ABC’s nightly news, he’s been delivering overwhelming doses of death, destruction, denial and failure. Tonight was joyful and we all shared in honouring this part of our identity. “For once,” Fernandez said. “I can smile.”
Yes, Jeremy, you can. Because people like you are there, shining the light into the dark corners, asking the hard questions. It’s like Bryan Stevenson’s grandmother advised him. “Do the right thing,’ she said when he was just a kid. “Even when the right thing is the hard thing.”