As the debate about Australia Day swings from thoughtful to banal, and from compassionate to cruel, I’m moved to share this poignant reflection by my step-daughter-in-law, Meena Singh, Associate Director of Aboriginal Services, Victoria Legal Aid. She says:

As 26 January gets closer, I feel a familiar sense of dread building. To deal with this dread, there are two versions of myself.

One version is furiously angry that we still need to have this debate, and that demands to know: ‘How can people be so uncaring? How can people not understand that this date, long before it was a designated a public holiday, has always been a date that marked the start of so much horror for Aboriginal people?’

The other version of myself is quieter and wants to hide away from everything and everyone and wait for the day to pass.

As I write this, I feel infinitely tired. Many voices presented by the media tell me, and other Aboriginal people, to ‘get over it’. They are a reminder of a lack of empathy many in this country seem to be proud of. Because to be an Aboriginal person in Australia is to be talked about, not talked to. And certainly not heard. 

Truth be told, these two versions of my self are in constant battle, such is my experience as an Aboriginal woman with Indian heritage, born and raised and living most of my life in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. I find it is necessary to give the quieter version of myself attention and care so that the angry side can find energy to agitate and challenge.

Last year, my boss and I made the decision to work the morning of 26 January as a quiet form of protest. In the afternoon, I attended the Survival Day march in Melbourne, another more visible form of protest. And there I felt an unique sense of hope. Reports said there were more people in the march than there were to watch the official Australia Day Parade. To see so many people–who were not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander–supporting a change of date for our national holiday was so energising. And in addition to that sense of hope, it gave me a feeling of something I hadn’t felt before on Australia Day.

A sense of belonging, of inclusion.

There is a fundamental desire in all of us to be included. To be accepted as we are, and not forced to change to fit in. From a very early age, when we first start playing with our peers, we understand what it means if we’re not included in a game, or if someone whispers about us, but not to us.

And yet the ability to exclude, to deny someone participation, is so powerful. Unfortunately, the history of the relationship between First Nations and non-Aboriginal people has been that of exclusion and denial. A stubborn and consistent refusal to see us as people with rights and dignities, autonomy and strength. By claiming that this is a date all Australians should be proud of, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last week, yet again, excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from the narrative that defines Australia.

I truly wish there was a public holiday known as Australia Day that I could feel part of. But as it is, January 26 is the anniversary of a foreign flag being planted in Australia, claiming it as a British colony. And from then, First Nations people were subjected to over two centuries of systematic genocide through laws, policies and practices that manifest itself as practical and systemic inequity today. The growth and wealth of the Australian community has come at the expense of Aboriginal people.

Some counter the change the date debate with ‘what will a change of date even achieve’ or ‘there are more important things to worry about’. For First Nations people, the symbolic and the practical are constantly used against each other, as if they weren’t connected at all.

I was at Federation Square with my mum, aunty and sisters when then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, gave the apology to the Stolen Generation. The feeling that came over everyone there was something I’ll never forget. The ‘release’, if you like, that came with the acknowledgment of the ongoing pain that was caused by past policies and practices, designed to break up families and deny culture and language. The apology certainly didn’t undo the pain, but it did say to people their experiences were heard. The symbolic had power that day.

I remember watching Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech on TV as an 18-year-old having just finished my year 12 studies. I had never heard a politician, let alone a prime minister, speak so frankly about what had been done to Aboriginal people. And he asked such a simple question, for non Aboriginal people to stop and think ‘what if that happened to me, to my community, to my family?’

From last year’s Close the Gap indicators, we’re going backwards in nearly all areas the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) committed to improve for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life expectancy, health, education and employment. Aboriginal people are over represented in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal women and children are far more likely to be victims of family violence. Our children are being removed from their families at alarming rates. There are plenty of important things to worry about.

But this debate is important too and it doesn’t lessen our work in other areas to agitate for this right now. If changing the date won’t ‘achieve anything’, does that imply something will be achieved if we do change the date? And if so, what are we afraid of achieving? That greater respect and understanding might flow from non-Aboriginal Australians to First Nations People? That we might close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal life expectancy and other social inclusion markers? That our fight for legal, structural and practical equality might one day see an end?

Sometimes we as individuals do things simply because it’s the right thing to do, not because we get any benefit ourselves, but because the benefit goes to others. I’d like to think that as a nation, we will one day approach January 26 in the same way, but we all gain the benefit that comes from changing the date of our national holiday. I think personally, such a move has the potential to achieve so much in terms of understanding ourselves as a society. Because it is the ability to see ourselves in the experiences and histories of others that connects us and makes us stronger.

So, what to do on this 26 January? I will never begrudge anyone a day off – public holidays are important to our well being, as are the reasons behind them. As the daughter of a migrant father, I can understand why so many people who choose to make Australia their home want to take part in celebrations on 26 January. Again, it comes back to feeling part of the community. Like last year, I’ll be working in the morning and attending the Survival Day march in Melbourne during the afternoon. I’m hoping I might get that feeling of inclusion again. But I’m also looking forward to feeling included year round, especially on a different date for Australia Day.”

Thanks, Meena, you help me understand.

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