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Australia Day Grace

Sunday, 21 January 2018  | Megan Powell du Toit




I’m one of those people who cry when the Australian anthem is played at the Olympics. I feel that tug of pride when a foreign celebrity professes love for our nation. I'm a belonger. I feel similar pride and love for my extended family, for my denominational tradition and for my city.

However, when my husband first came to my extended family Christmas, I was quick to warn him that the noise level due to simultaneous loud conversations would be deafening. I'm also the first to admit that a coffee table book celebrating ugly church buildings of Australia would be dominated by Baptist ones - we seem to think ugliness is next to godliness. Sydney is, of course, the best city in the world, but it's ridiculously expensive.

We can love Australia and still admit the faults and blemishes. Christians, of all people, should be open to this. We declare a God who loves us despite our failures. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). Love doesn’t require perfection. And when it comes to Australia, like other countries, we have a past and present that causes some shame. As with most communities, we have that which we should celebrate and that of which we should repent. This should lead us as Christians to confession. In particular, we need to confess that we built this country upon the deaths and oppression of the original inhabitants, and that the results of this continue today:

  • Massacres ongoing into the 20th century in The Frontier Wars.
  • The outright systematic and legalised extermination of Aboriginal people in Tasmania.
  • The stolen generations, a measure of forced assimilation.
  • Universal Indigenous Suffrage not achieved at a federal level until 1962; Queensland was the last state to confer suffrage on Aboriginal peoples in 1965.[1]
  • Indigenous people not counted in the census until 1967.
  • A life expectancy that still trails the average Australian by 10 years.

I’m a white Australian woman whose heritage is mainly British – with a little bit of French thrown in for flavour. When it comes to discussing the impact of colonisation upon the original inhabitants of this land, I need to listen to them. To my shame, I started listening properly only in recent years. As a child, those around me didn’t recognise the pain the day brought to some. Even as better knowledge has made me aware of this, I still for a while attempted to both acknowledge this pain and celebrate my country on January 26th. Just two years ago, I made an Iced Vovo tart and Instagrammed it. But I have come to the conclusion, as I have listened to the pain of my indigenous compatriots, that any celebration potentially shows a callousness that I have no desire to communicate to them. Although there is much to celebrate about Australia, I cannot do so on January 26th. Because they cannot.

What has made the difference? I think there has been a general increase in public awareness and conversation about this in the past couple of years. But I have also listened to Aboriginal friends. One in particular is very close to me, like family, and I have listened to her. I cannot celebrate while she mourns. And I certainly can’t look her in the face while I do so. I asked her to share with us how she currently feels about Australia Day, and she has graciously done so, though she has elected to remain anonymous.

I quote her response to my question in full:

How can we celebrate a day that condones genocide? All Aboriginal people have suffered as a result of colonisation. Colonisation started with invasion. I deliberately use the term invasion rather than settlement. That is why for many Aboriginal people January 26 is seen as Invasion Day. For me, I choose deliberately to take back my power and own my ancestors’ power and refer to the day as Survival Day. That despite invasion, massacres, and the rape and subjugation of women and children, despite the over-representation of Aboriginal people in jail, despite the racism, and despite the dispossession, disempowerment and destabilising of communities, Aboriginal people have been resilient. I celebrate that resilience every day.

On January 26 I mourn and remember the warriors who came before me. When I was younger, I was angrier and it was about invasion; now it’s about grieving in such a way that honours and continues to ensure survival. Changing the date won’t change the violent and racist history of this country, nor will it stop children being taken away or deaths in custody, nor will it close the gap in any way. We need to keep working towards making real changes. Changing the date will, however, indicate that Australia is aware of its bloody past, that we stand together to work towards an equitable society - a society where we celebrate what’s great about this nation. Not the day that marked the invasion that started the massacres, or began the cultural destruction of the world’s oldest living culture.

She is just one voice, of course, and so we need to seek out the multiple perspectives of our Indigenous people and listen to them. But, she is a voice that is important to me. Friendship has a way of opening us up to new perspectives and greater truth.

In what she says, she acknowledges mixed feelings. This for me has been a way into understanding to some degree what it must feel like for her. I think mixed feelings about dates is something many of us know. I know my own mother spent many years dreading Christmas as her own mother died a couple of days after Christmas. For myself, Good Friday reminds me of the loss of a child to miscarriage. We are aware, these days, of the need for care around days of celebration – acknowledging the grief for some that Mother’s Day brings, for instance. For many of these days, there is no option of changing the date – any date would result in similar ambivalence for someone.

But, with Australia Day, with have a simple answer to some of the pain that day causes. We can move the day to another date and instead declare January 26th a national day of sorrow for what has been done.

This is our problem when we come to Australia Day. We have chosen to celebrate our nation on a date that reminds the original inhabitants of the evil and injustice done to them. In this, I am calling those of us with no Indigenous heritage to be other-centred. We may well attach significance and happy memories to the date of January 26th. But we need to weigh these in the balance with the cruel reminder such a date entails. There are no weighty reasons for retaining the date. It has only been a national public holiday since 1994. Meanwhile, the calls for a change of attitude to January 26th have been around for a lot longer. In 1938, the Indigenous response to Australia’s sesquicentenary was a Day of Mourning. We can easily, and more happily, celebrate Australia Day on another date, and over time that will become hallowed tradition. It is no major sacrifice to move it. But, in doing so, we communicate love and respect in a way necessary for reconciliation. For a faith centered on the cross, this should be an easy equation. We are called to live other-centred lives of self-sacrificial love. To make large sacrifices for love of others. This is a small sacrifice.

There was some recent controversy over the Triple J Hottest 100 changing its count down to the following day. Some politicians used it for political mileage. Triple M announced a rival Ozzest 100. The Australian Conservatives tried something similar, to the disapproval of some of the musicians included. What are we saying when we cannot perceive the moving of the date of the hottest 100 as an Australian act? It is, dare I say it, a fundamentally Christian act, in its concern to offer acceptance and healing to the wounded. Some have responded by suggesting we vote for the song January 26 in an attempt to get it voted most Australian song. The song argues for the date to be changed. Dan Sultan, featured in the song, spoke to this issue on Q and A last year:

I think we should recognise the 26th of January for what it is, which is a day that started the on-going genocide of our people. I think there are many days throughout our history that include everybody and I think it's important that a day called Australia Day includes all Australians. The fact of the matter is that it doesn't include us; it excludes us.

This finally, after listening and considering and praying, is where I land. A national day should promote unity in the nation. As a Christian, I see part of my role within our society is to be a voice that promotes a love of all people, that expresses the love God has for all. In love, we need to move the date. My thanks to those who have helped me to see this.

Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister, Publications and Policies Administrator for the Australian College of Theology and editor of the academic journal Colloquium.



[1] While some of the states gave Indigenous men the vote from the start, because some states did not, the indigenous people of these states were not given the vote upon Federation. In 1949, the right to vote was extended to those who had served in the armed forces. See http://www.aec.gov.au/indigenous/milestones.htm for more information. 


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