When the Constitution first came into being in 1901, Section 127 provided that ‘in reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted’. Our nation’s First Peoples had to wait until the 1967 Referendum in order to be counted as people in the Census.
As Greeks, we harbour certain historical memories about similarly not being treated as human beings by imperial powers. For over four hundred years, we enjoyed the legal status of the raya, a word that literally means a flock for we were ‘shorn’ (ie. taxed), in order to support our overlords. Just like early Anglo-Australia, so too did our erstwhile dynasts achieve their prosperity and power by “riding on the sheep’s back.”
This year, we commemorate a dolorous event: the one hundred year anniversary of the extirpation of the Asia Minor Greeks from their ancestral homelands. Last year, we commemorated the two hundred year anniversary of the Revolution proclaimed to rid us of the unbearable burden of a satrap who could not and would not treat us human beings. During the time we languished under his rule, our land was taken from us, our people were enslaved, our customs and traditions destroyed, our children stolen from us and in many cases we were forced to change our religious beliefs as these were considered inferior. When we determined to fight back, our fight for freedom and equality was met with genocide.
With the memory as our historical heritage, it is impossible for the Greek-Australian Community to support the maintenance of the date of 26 January, the day Captain Arthur Philip landed in Sydney Cove, marking the beginning of British settlement, when the British flag was planted and formal possession was taken, as Australia Day. For if we do so, we render the entire premise upon which the Modern Greek identity has been constructed, one of resistance against oppression and of constant struggle for equality, completely redundant. Of all the ethno-linguistic groups inhabiting Australia, ours is the one best place to empathise with the pain of our First Peoples when forced to recognise possibly the most calamitous date in their histories, as a day of celebration, just as if we were compelled to celebrate the 29th of May, or the 19th of May for that matter. Consequently, we know that we cannot be complicit in any attempt to efface or obscure the enormity of the crime that was visited upon our First Peoples upon the arrival of the British and their violent occupation of this country. We too, have suffered much, and remember too much.
There is also another reason why the Greek-Australian community cannot and should not continue to support the 26th of January as Australia Day. The Australia Day Council defines the day as follows: “On Australia Day we come together as a nation to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian. It’s the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation. It’s the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future… Though 26 January marks [the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Great Britain, and the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove] today Australia Day celebrations reflect contemporary Australia: our diverse society and landscape, our remarkable achievements and our bright future. It also is an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s history, and to consider how we can make Australia an even better place in future.”
In other words, although we commemorate the same event: the establishment of the British as a dominant class in this country, the spin we put on it, can change according to the dictates of the self-same ruling class. After all, the Australia Day Council consists of board members appointed by the Australian Prime Minister, he being the chief representative of the dominant class, whose landing all ethnic minorities are expected to celebrate and to internalise as an event otherwise completely irrelevant to their experience in Australia or to their historical memories overall, as significant to their own lives.
This is also why the 26th January is considered the ideal date on which to hold citizenship ceremonies. In no uncertain terms, the ruling class is reminding those who it chooses to include among its citizenry, that they are being called upon to legitimise the seizure of sovereignty from its rightful owners, a process which took place on the same date in 1788. Every time a new citizen takes their oath, they become complicit in that act, which is continuous in nature.
Our community’s presence in this country as an organised entity pre-dates Australia. The Australia founded in 1901, without consultation with its First Peoples or its migrant communities was to quote wartime Prime Minister John Curtin: “forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace (sic) in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race.” Over the course of a century, our community played an active role in transforming that conception of what Australia should be, into the multicultural paradigm where terms in the policy discourse such as ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ are employed to ‘distinguish the mainstream community from those in which English is not the main language and/or cultural norms and values differ,’ and where such diversity, presided over by English speaking legislators and public administrators, is “celebrated.”
Considering that according to the multicultural paradigm, our cultures form an intrinsic part of the Australian identity, considering to quote the Seekers, that: “We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands of earth we come,” it makes absolutely no sense to celebrate as the day that defines and encapsulates modern, diverse and polyvalent Australia, a date that specifically refers to the history of only one of the ethnic groups in this land, albeit (for now at least), the dominant one and which completely ignores the historical memories and experiences of all of the other groups that have settled in this country, or which existed here ab initio.
If, again, to quote the Seekers, “I am, you are, we are Australian,” then surely it is incumbent upon the relevant powers to enter into broad based consultations and engagement with all of the peoples who comprise the unique Australian polity in order to find a date to celebrate Australia that actually means something to all Australians and is not confined in its appreciation to just one race and its descendants, and of course which does not have so many dreadful connotations attached to it. Until such time as they are serious about identifying a date that is inclusive, our community should not assist in perpetuating a date that is disrespectful, exclusionist and which celebrates imperialism, with all that this entails.
If one were given the opportunity to suggest a suitable date to celebrate Australia, then one could look no further than 27 May. For it was on that date in 1967, that the Australian people voted for the requisite changes in the Constitution so as to allow our First Peoples to be counted as Australians in the Census, proving how progressive, just and compassionate we can be when at our best.
I wouldn’t get rid of the 26th January holiday however. That can be renamed Survival Day or Resistance Day, commemorating the great Pemulwuy, a member of the Bidjigal clan of the Eora people who led the resistance against British colonisation for twelve years, before his assassination at the behest of Governor King. Pemulwuy’s head was preserved in spirits and was sent to England to Sir Joseph Banks accompanied by a letter from Governor King, who wrote: “Although a terrible pest to the colony, he was a brave and independent character.” We, the descendants of those who survived 1922, know how to celebrate a hero when we see one. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon our community, to agitate for an inclusive and compassionate Australia that can deal maturely with its past and embrace its future in a spirit of optimism and reconciliation, not only in word, but also in deed. In these difficult times, where the pandemic and other social pressures tear at the margins of a society that has hithero prided itself on its cohesion, appointing a more appropriate date that truly gives meaning to our own community’s inclusion, and that of all others into the Australian discourse, as a means of celebrating our own remarkable multifaceted identity as Australians, is as sorely needed, as ever before.