Australia Faces a War With Its British History - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Australia Faces a War With Its British History

Australia Faces a War With Its British History

By Erin Cook


Because when ignored, history can return to haunt us.

By Erin Cook

The world’s largest annual radio poll might seem an unusual target for a fierce battle in Australia’s culture wars. But for former fans of youth radio station Triple J’s Hottest 100, boycotting the event is a small step toward equality.

Once seen as the last hurrah of a long summer, an Australia Day spent binge-drinking to a countdown of the year’s biggest songs is giving way to a reassessment of what the national holiday represents and what it truly is that Australians are representing.

A large crowd turns out to watch the Australia Day parade

A large crowd turns out to watch the Australia Day parade.

Source Darrian Traynor/Getty

A campaign to celebrate Australia Day on any day other than Jan. 26, the anniversary of the arrival of Britain’s First Fleet into Sydney Cove in 1788, is gaining ground. This date, tradition says, marks the founding of the settlement that would become modern-day Australia. But to indigenous Australians and growing ranks of sympathetic non-indigenous Australians, this date represents the beginning of genocide, dispossession from land and the destruction of families that continues today.

Colonialism continues to structure unequal access to political power, to economic resources, to social services.

Miranda Johnson, researcher, University of Sydney 

Called “Change the Date,” the campaign has grown from the margins to a mainstream political stance in less than a decade. Earlier this year, protesters in Sydney spray-painted “No Pride in Genocide” on a statue of Capt. James Cook, the British explorer who “discovered” Australia in 1770. They also defaced a statue of former New South Wales governor Lachlan Macquarie. Now, inner-city councils are refusing to celebrate what some have rebranded as “Invasion Day,” and organizers of Hottest 100 have sought consultation with community representatives and listeners to review the date it is held.


But Australia’s still-dominant conservative forces aren’t about to allow the erasure of Eurocentric histories and narratives without a fight either, setting the stage for an increasingly heated battle over the country’s identity. 

“One of the underlying reasons for the resurgence of these debates is that colonialism continues to structure unequal access to political power, to economic resources, to social services,” says Miranda Johnson, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Sydney whose work focuses on indigenous and colonial histories.

At first glance, the debate appears to share similarities with the one ongoing in the American South, over Confederate statues and their place in the U.S. of the 21st century. But at the heart of the sentiments behind the campaign over Australia Day are larger political goals aimed at recognizing the contribution of Australia’s indigenous communities to its history. In October, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unceremoniously shot down a proposal by aboriginal elders throughout Australia to establish an advisory body to consult with the government of the day on the community’s concerns.

Australian Aborigines with decorated shields and spears.

Australian Aborigines with decorated shields and spears.

Source Hulton Archive/Getty

Responses to the rejection underline the widening gulf between the two sides. Noel Pearson, a leading indigenous land rights activist and member of the Referendum Council body, told the state-owned news broadcaster ABC he thought “Malcolm Turnbull had broken the First Nations’ hearts of this country.” (Australia’s indigenous communities refer to themselves as the First Nations’ peoples of the country.)

Commentators in Australia’s conservative media were less emotive. Well-known right-wing writer Rowan Dean slammed the proposal as “meaningless left-wing guff” and empty symbolism that Turnbull was correct in rejecting.

But the divide isn’t surprising, suggests Johnson. Unlike India, which won its fight against the British for independence in 1947, and Algeria, which saw most French settlers leave after its 1962 independence, Australia has never definitively reconciled its present with its colonial past, she says. “I think there is something distinctive about the public battles over the past and over national and indigenous identity here, and it’s about that unresolved question of colonialism and the stark legacies for indigenous peoples today,” says Johnson.

To some, the debate is a dangerous expression of identity politics. The left and right both want equality, differing only on the “how,” says Bella d’Abrera, director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program at the Institute of Public Affairs, a prominent conservative think tank. D’Abrera reviewed 746 history courses at 35 of Australia’s leading universities this year. Her research, published in a controversial report in October, concluded that “undergraduate history degrees in Australia have become dominated by identity politics” and had seen Westerncentric narratives ditched in favor of “left-wing cultural theory” — at a great loss to Australian culture.

1st April 1770: A print from a painting showing Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779) taking possession of New South Wales, taken from the collection of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Capt. James Cook takes possession of New South Wales.

Source Hulton Archive/Getty

“The more that students are taught to view history in terms of identity politics, which by its nature is divisive, the more it will manifest on campuses across Australia, creating inequality where there is none,” says d’Abrera. There is space for other narratives to be taught to Australia’s best and brightest, she concedes, but is concerned about the disappearance of a Western focus. “The idea of victim groups is attractive,” she says.

Maybe. But the demands and the outcome of the debate they’ve triggered, says Johnson, will have a real impact on one of Australia’s most marginalized communities, its indigenous peoples. “These particular hot issues stand in for much larger questions — what does justice mean in a settler-colonial society? Have indigenous peoples received justice?” she says.

The wants of indigenous Australia are only half the battle, Johnson says, with non-indigenous Australia needing to come to the table too, if the country is to finally come to terms with its complex history. But will they engage in the debate, consider the demands, and think and talk about them? she wonders. Or will they simply dismiss the challenge before them as too hard?

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories