For a decade, a national apology was sought from Prime Minister John Howard. For a decade, he refused to provide one on the basis that most Australians were ‘sorry for past mistreatment but that is different from assuming responsibility for it’.
As our second longest serving Prime Minister, the last to leave behind a surplus and the last to survive a full term in office, John Howard’s position cannot simply be dismissed. His point about responsibility for past mistreatment has never been more relevant.
The City of Fremantle’s recent axing of Australia Day celebrations is not an isolated occurrence. The Rottnest Island Authority has recently considered changing the names of its various landmarks in an attempt to conceal aspects of the island’s colonial past.
These are direct consequences of a militant wave of post-colonial activism that has come to plague the way we imagine our past and present across the English-speaking world. Instead of having us all come together as Australians, Americans, Canadians, Brits and Kiwis irrespective of our ancestry, it seeks to plunge our national consciousness into a mythological struggle between imaginary Cowboys and Indians.
It seeks to divide and conquer our sense of cultural unity by characterising some as cruel oppressors and others as downtrodden victims. It offers no room for intellectual debate and voices of dissent are automatically construed as voices of bigotry.
The #BlackLivesMatter and #IllRideWithYou social media campaigns are cut from the same ideological cloth.
Sadly, symbolic fixes to imaginary problems are sought in place of actual fixes to real problems. If only similar efforts were invested in closing the gap on education, health and employment outcomes, we would be light years ahead in our quest for reconciliation.
The City of Fremantle’s replacement of Australia Day celebrations on 26th January with the made-up festivity called ‘One Day’ on 28th January is another example of hollow symbolism.It will achieve nothing except entail self-destructive legal and political implications for our nation. By establishing that 26 January – the day that marks the arrival of the First Fleet of British settlers – is a day of national mourning, the City of Fremantle has conceded that the founding of Australia was a shameful error.
Disregarding John Howard’s precaution that being sorry for the past is different from assuming responsibility for it, the City of Fremantle has set a dangerous precedent suggesting that current Australian government bodies can be liable to grant redress for historical grievances.
The question is, how far can this precedent be stretched? The reasons for axing Australia Day could technically apply to every institutional, political and cultural artefact installed on this land as a consequence of British colonisation.
It may be said that the Union Jack on our national flag is a ‘culturally insensitive’ symbol of British colonialism and should be replaced with a more inclusive flag. The Canadians opted for the maple leaf in 1965 on exactly these grounds. It cost New Zealand taxpayers $23 million to hold a referendum to work out that most Kiwis wanted to retain their current flag. Imagine the cost to Australian taxpayers if we were dragged down this path.
The Australia Act (1986) Cth established that Britain is a foreign power. It may be asked, why do we have a foreign monarch as our head of state who at best does nothing and at worst symbolises the same British Empire whose arrival on our shores is officially recognised as shameful by the City of Fremantle?
The national anthems of South Africa and New Zealand contain verses in precolonial languages. It may be suggested we do the same with Advance Australia Fair to make it more inclusive.
There is a $10 million taxpayer funded national campaign underway seeking to insert a race-based reference in the Commonwealth Constitution, despite the great irony that the document already recognises every Australian irrespective of race.
The reality is that this precedent could be used to potentially undermine every organ of our national machinery that happens to be of British origin.
This means our representative democracy, Westminster parliamentary system, common law and all else ranging from English as our national language to the game of cricket. These are all products of British colonialism.
Racial quotas in Zimbabwe and South Africa demonstrate that the world of sports is not exempt from post-colonial activism. Imagine if Cricket Australia and AFL were to replace merit with affirmative action. Just how far will we go to euthanise the pillars holding us together as a nation in the name of reconciliation?
If the triumph of Brexit and of Donald Trump are an indication, the English-speaking world is undergoing a cultural awakening. Like our British and American counterparts, Australians are ready to take a stand against this wave of post-colonial activism.
We know their problem doesn’t end with Australia Day. Their problem is with the British colonial foundations of this country. Zimbabwe and South Africa succumbed to the path of post-colonial activism. The end result was corruption, instability and reverse racism – all revenge and no reconciliation. Australia deserves better than that.
It is time we reject the idea that some must carry inter-generational guilt for historical actions they never authorised while others must remain aggrieved by the past instead of embracing the opportunities afforded by the present.
It is time we all join forces to foster a colour-blind society where each of us is seen as equally Australian without obsessing over whose ancestors did what or came from where.
The day we start focussing on policies that do good rather than simply feel good will be the day we can say we have achieved reconciliation.
Sherry Sufi is Chairman of the WA Liberal Party’s Policy Committee. He holds a BA in Philosophy, an MA in Politics and a Master of History. Views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Party or the Committee.