January 11, 2010

Symbols Matter

What do a stuffed Aborigine and the Queen have in common? The answer is Australia Day 1961.

I am pleased that it was a different Australia Day organiser than me, and one from an earlier generation in 1961. Professor McMahon Ball described one function he attended where

...immense care had been taken to make the stage platform an expression of what Australia stood for. This had been achieved by putting a stuffed kangaroo and emu on the right, stuffed aborigine on the left, and a coloured portrait of the Queen in the centre.

An earlier generation still had an even more exclusionary attitude to the Aboriginal people. When preparing for the centenary in 1888, and when asked about what he had planned for the Aboriginal people, Henry Parkes Premier of NSW responded, 'And remind them that we have robbed them?'

Symbols matter and our national day is a very powerful symbol. Symbols can build up or symbols can put down. The description of 1961 seems to categorise the ‘aborigine’ as wildlife, a notion which is now, thankfully, unthinkable. Her Majesty, however, is realised in full colour. Knowingly leaving the whole indigenous population out of the centenary celebrations possibly makes an even more powerful statement.

Thank goodness much has changed in recent decades. We are getting better at recognising the unique place Aboriginal people have in our history and our present. The Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 provided an uplifting moment when in the opening ceremony Djakapurra Munyarryun walked out onto the arena hand-in-hand with Nicky Webster. A wonderful symbol of reconciliation – walking together into the future.

Australia Day is a symbol – a symbol of who we are and what we choose to celebrate. It is a day when we talk about our strengths and achievements as a nation. It is also a time to talk about our future as a people – to share ideas for the future – to address our weakness and challenges.

In recent decades tokenistic representations if Indigenous Australians have been replaced by real people. People who’s contribution to the fabric of the nation can be celebrated. People who at an Australia Day event might welcome you to their country and share a story with you. Real people who have great pride in their enduring culture.

Symbols matter. Australia Day must be a day to honestly acknowledge our past, rejoice in the present and look confidently to the future. Australia Day must be inclusive of all.

While we have come so far in many respects, I suspect that generations to come might be puzzled by the fact that it still remains a formal requirement to display a portrait of the Queen at Citizenship Ceremonies on Australia Day.

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