For many Australians January 26th represents a day off work, an invite to many barbeques and an opportunity to celebrate some of the quirks of Australian culture. For those of us critical of the use of nationalism as a political tool, the jingoism displayed in this day is tedious and frustrating. But for many of the 3% of the population who are Aboriginal, the day represents something far more sinister and profound.
The story of Australia’s history told in official Australia Day accounts perpetuates the myth that Australia was founded and peacefully settled by British colonisers. The date of the holiday was chosen to coincide with the arrival of the British First Fleet in 1788. The Australia Day version of history serves to erase the brutal reality of Australia’s construction. For Australia’s First Nations – who represent the oldest continuing civilisations in human history – January 26th marks the beginning of a brutal genocide that saw the murder of hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people. Many aspects of this genocide continue today.
Celebrating Australia Day as a day of national unity necessitates the erasure Aboriginal history and identity. The truth of any capitalist nation is that not all citizens are equal and this is especially the case in Australia. As a British colonial outpost in far Asia, Australia was consciously constructed as a white nation to the exclusion of all others. This began with the slaughter of Aboriginal people. While the explicitly racist ‘White Australia’ policy formally ended in 1973, its legacy continues. The racism and xenophobia directed towards different waves of immigrants over the years is clear evidence of this.
Some argue Australia Day is about celebrating “what is good about this country”, not the genocide of Aboriginal people. But it is not possible to separate the two. The whole basis of Australian economic prosperity, typified by billionaire mining barons and huge agricultural companies, is based on forced land dispossession. Much of the land was taken after the Indigenous inhabitants were killed. Many of those who were lucky enough to survive were forced onto missions where they were abused, forced into unpaid labour and had their children stolen from them.
This dispossession is not just a tragedy of the past, as many claim. The ongoing Northern Territory Intervention has seen the destruction and relocation of entire communities, forcing Aboriginal people off mineral rich land for mining companies to freely exploit. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s infamous comment that living in a remote Aboriginal community is an unjustified lifestyle choice was the latest in a long history of the Australian ruling elite viewing Aboriginal people as both a nuisance and a convenient scapegoat.
The truth is that the survival of Aboriginal people is a threat to Australian capitalism. An acknowledgement of the wrongs committed against Aboriginal people raises the question of how to right those wrongs. Specifically, it raises the question of rightful ownership of land and resources. It is not by accident that the Aboriginal rights movement has historically been focused on land rights.
Such questions poke at the heart of the blatant injustice and inequality of the capitalist system. On what basis do landlords, miners and agriculturalists claim ownership of land? On what legitimacy is private property acquired? Why do the rich have everything and the rest of us have next to nothing?
It is in the interests of all ordinary Australians to stand with Aboriginal activists and ask these questions. Ultimately, the solution to exclusion and dispossession is reappropriation and collective ownership. But such a radical solution will only be possible if we are able to unite together against the rich and powerful capitalist class. This will require developing a movement with a vision for a new way of creating and distributing wealth that can address the wrongs of the past as well as plan for a future that can provide for all. This future is socialism and we need to start the fight for it now. We all have a stake in this fight.
By David Elliott