The great Australian debate is really about whether modern Australia needs to be apologetic about its success and history or not. To me, this is an absurd question. There is hardly a better place in the entire world to call home. It is a beautiful, progressive, safe and peaceful country by any standards. There is much to be proud of. Why would you be apologetic about this fantastic country that you’ve helped create?
If anyone needs to be apologetic, it’s the British crown and parliament, who sanctioned and ordered the illegal occupation of Australia. The idea that you can just take rubbish from your country and dump it in a wholly independent land without permission from the country’s owners is so far removed from any sense of fair play that it’s hard to imagine the moral values prevalent in Britain at the time this decision was made. The background to this is of course that in the mid eighteenth century the economic conditions in Britain were so harsh that petty crime was rampant and the justice system so severe that it created millions of criminals. So many criminals, in fact, that there was no place on dry land to create enough prisons for them. Britain experimented with prison ships, which were anchored in rivers like the Thames and contractors were commissioned to maintain these floating prisons. Mismanagement and greed ensured that conditions in these prisons were so hellish that most prisoners died of horrible diseases before their sentences were served. This was becoming such a political nightmare for the administration that they started to look for ways to make this problem disappear from public awareness. No one cared about the actual conditions of prisoners or their welfare; they just wanted the issue to disappear. So someone came up with the idea of exporting prisoners overseas from where they couldn’t return. Prisoners were sent to America for decades before the idea of Australia was even floated. In fact, Australia had to be considered only when the American revolution started and americans told the crown to piss off and dump their rubbish elsewhere.
Penal transportation was actually roaring business and there were plenty of commercial vested interests in seeing the continuation of the penal and slave transportation businesses (they meant the same thing to the shipping merchants, prisoners were treated like slaves on most ships anyway)
So people got dragged thousands of miles from their home to the shores of Australia, an inhospitable place that might as well have been Mars in terms of attraction and familiarity. The first immigrants were told by Arthur Philip (the first Governor General of Australia) this land was now part of Britain and the same laws and regulations applied. There was never any acknowledgement or accommodation for aboriginal people in Philip’s declaration (even though he was relatively sympathetic to aboriginals compared to his Colonial masters) so how could the common settlers been expected to accommodate aboriginals in their designs for the colony. Land holdings were distributed by the crown as if it owned that land. This was manifestly a lie. The crown had no legitimate right to distribute land that it did not own. But you can’t blame the poor convict or soldier who, after years of back and soul breaking struggle had finally managed to secure a land or fishing grant, which provided means for his family in a hostile land where survival was by no means guaranteed. How can one expect this simpleton to share in his hard earned reward with savages whom he has no reason to have affinity with? Whose laws and culture he doesn’t understand, while being told that he doesn’t need to either. The skirmishes between aboriginals and settlers were unavoidable and it is to the credit of both sides that there have been relatively few bloody battles in the history of Australia. Sure, there were Australian excesses like the stolen generation which were totally unnecessary and home-grown. Australia must take responsibility for them and Kevin Rudd’s apology on behalf of Australians for this was most certainly a step in the right direction.
But really, the fate of Australian aborigines was sealed and never in doubt, retrospectively, from the moment the colonial pen dripping with false authority approved penal transportation to Australia.
What has been done can never be undone and to ask a modern Australian, who has no affinity to the British crown, to apologize for the “invasion” of Australia is as ridiculous as asking a young, secular Hindu (who was not even born at the time) to apologize for the massacre of Sikhs by Hindus in Delhi, 1984.
The hard working and innovative settlers of Australia have created, from scratch, a thriving economy and a nation that is the envy of the world. Their story needs to be celebrated, not condemned. As a modern Australian, I’m proud of the country I’ve adopted as my home and thankful to the early settlers for laying the foundations of an egalitarian society. I call amongst my friends people from all races and walks of life: academics, mechanics, industrialists, engineers, plumbers, teachers, corporate managers. It’s no accident that all of us can sit down together as equals and not let anyone get too full of themselves. No, it’s by design and is my favourite Australian value.
The Australian story is one of self-made people who have been successful not on the basis of titles or the accident of birth but by the dint of hard work and an environment that promotes fairness. It amazes me how the nation has let itself down by letting the aboriginal reconciliation debate get hijacked into a polarising one that divides Australians. To the point that any discussion on this topic stagnates even before it starts. But the truth is that the less time we spend on assigning blame for the condition of aboriginals in the country, the more time we can spend on constructively thinking of solutions to ensure all Australians share equally in the bounty we are creating for our future generations.
If someone has to be blamed before we all can move on, blame the British. They’ve left behind a legacy of messes all over the world, one more isn’t really going to upset them. I don’t understand this sense of loyalty some modern Australians have towards the crown. Australia was used as a dumping ground for your ancestors, nothing more. Many settlers died of hunger and malnutrition due to neglect by Brittain. The survival of that small group of people cast away by a cruel administration into a god forsaken corner of the world was by no means guaranteed and many times came close to annihilation in the first 20 years. The nascent colony survived due to the resourcefulness and grit of the original settlers, the benign nature of the aboriginals and sheer luck more than any support from the British. Once it was established, of course the crown came along claiming it’s success, calling it the greatest social experiment in human history etc. etc. Yet we have idiots like Tony Abbott trying to revive the institution of knighthood, which is more alien to modern Australians than laksa.
And to the question of the date that we celebrate Australia Day on. Yes, it’s the date that Philip declared Australia to be terra nullis and claimed it in the name of the crown. So, if you think about it, it’s not exactly a historically proud moment. But, what other date do we have? The date the constitution was framed? A constitution that does not acknowledgement of aboriginal land rights and was never accepted by the aboriginals? What other dates do we have of any significance to modern Australia? I’m sure any date you pick will either be bereft of any historical significance or will have some negative connotation for some people. Australia is here to stay in this shape and form in the foreseeable future so to become part of it, you’re going to have to let go of things at some point. Don’t forget. I’m sure aboriginals can never forget but don’t carry hate and blame in your hearts for the success of modern Australia, be a part of it. War was declared on your nation, your ancestors failed to recognize it and you ended up on the losing side. It’s OK, history is full of people bouncing back from invasions and defeats. Stand up, organise yourselves, fight for your rights as modern Australians and be strong again.
And modern Australians, don’t hate aboriginals for making you feel guilty. They have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. Our current treatment of them is like the Dad with 2 kids who hit one of the kids when he was little, impairing him for life. Then giving the disabled kid chocolates and video games for the rest of his life so he keeps himself amused in his own little world. And when the kid grows up into a violent and spoilt brat totally unable to reconcile himself with the real world, the other kid can’t understand what’s wrong with his brother and complains to Dad about why his brother has all the latest games and is able to throw tantrums without repercussions. Dad says “your brother’s stuffed in the head, just humour him OK. He’ll wither away and die soon enough”.
As long as we keep acting like that Dad, we’re not going to be able to move forward, together, as a nation with a clear conscience, reconciled with our past.