The most polite sensations Australia Day leaves me with are boredom and a kind of resentment – ennui may be the word. The resentment comes from this. Those who style themselves as ‘conservative,’ and bust their gut each year to celebrate the day that the English opened their slammer here, and just ignore the grief that we brought to the blackfellas, are usually those most intent on keeping our old flag, with its curtsy to Empire, and on refusing to have our own head of state, but keeping a monarch who happens to be the head of the Church of England. Nationalism is usually repellent, and the first resort of those who don’t do too well on their own two feet, but when it is mixed with bullshit, which it usually is, it is revolting. And that is a more accurate epithet for my usual feelings on this day.
So, it was quite a relief to read the front page of The Australian Financial Review that came out on the eve of the day that whatever we celebrate, it is not independence. Under AUSTRALIA DAY SPECIAL ISSUE we get 2020 REVISION. Under that:
A burnt-out landscape. A war zone of dead wild life. Unbreathable air. A smoke-damaged vintage. A laggard on climate change. Advertising alone won’t repair Australia’s image problem.
(That last one might really put the wind up the Prime Minister, since advertising is about all that he is good for. Without a script, he is adrift.)
Then there is – still on the front page – a box for an article VIEW FROM THE SHORE. ‘Rodney Kelly’s ancestor was shot by the Endeavour’s crew and believes the 250th anniversary is a time to put things right.’
Beside that there is a bombshell. DAVID KEMP: HOW WE FAILED.
‘James Cook’s Enlightenment ideals were discarded by a brash new colony – to the cost of Indigenous Australians.’
Real conservatives are hard to find here, but this one – David Kemp – at least has an impeccable pedigree. He served as a minister under that awful little man who could not bring himself to apologise to our first nations. Little Johnnie Howard would have gagged on ‘How we failed.’ He wasn’t there when they aborigines were slaughtered. (He wasn’t at Gallipoli either, but principle was never his strong suit.)
What Mr Kemp actually said was:
We now know that the hopes of the Enlightenment leaders, fulfilled in so many ways, in relation to the aboriginal people were misplaced and soon betrayed…..The great silence that has settled on this tragic story is now being lifted….Australians have remembered Cook’s arrival on many occasions in the past, and built memorials to the event, but this year will be different, and the differences will record our evolution as nation. Memorials this year will express a new appreciation that there were two views of what occurred….It has taken 250 years, but we have come at last to recognise that both views must be part of the telling of our national story, and building our national identity. Australia now is better able to face its past with more realism than before. It is, after all, a country that is a product both of the scientific and liberal values of the British Enlightenment and of the ancient hospitable, artistic and consultative culture already here, a culture inextricably wedded to the magnificent land we now share.
Those remarks are in my view so significant that I will abstain for now from comment – except to thank and congratulate Mr Kemp for acting as he now has.
In Beneath Another Sky, the English historian Norman Davies looks at the ‘us v them’ issue in a round the world tour. His discussion of Texas is both droll and enlightening. In commenting on some of ‘rousing stuff’ about the Alamo, the author says:
One of the failings of patriotism is its blindness to the patriotism of others.
One of the great blessings conferred on our lives by the arts is that they are our chief means of breaking bread with the dead. Without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible. (W H Auden)