President and members of the Board
Members and guests of the SCC
I acknowledge too the Nugunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered this evening. I acknowledge them, as we gather here to celebrate Australia Day, as the first Australians. I pay to them my respects as the first and only custodians of this land, in the case of Canberra , for in excess of 25,000 years and of Australia for up to 50,000 years and I acknowledge their continuing contribution to Canberra, this region and Australia.
Happy Australia Day everyone.
Thank you to the Southern Cross Club for the invitation to speak tonight . I am very happy to do so.
I am a first generation Australian. My parents and four siblings migrated to Australia from England They arrived in Australia exactly 62 years ago, by boat, the MV Georgic, their fare was ten pounds, they disembarked on 8 February 1950 at Circular Quay, in Sydney. At the same place but exactly 162 years after the First Fleet.
My wife Robyn, who I am pleased is here tonight, is an eighth generation Australian. She is a descendant of Rebecca Chipperham , the first member of her family to come to Australia who also arrived by boat from England, the Neptune, a ship of the Second Fleet, she disembarked at Circular Quay on 28 June 1790, 2 years after the First Fleet. Her passage was free, even if she wasn't. Robyn and now our children can thus proudly claim descent from the earliest of the non- indigenous settlers of this nation. Pioneers, albeit convicts, who took the first steps in the development and creation of modern day Australia.
All of us here this evening have much in common, all of us perhaps with the exception of those of us who have an indigenous heritage, share for example, somewhere in our family history, a stock of experiences common to all migrants.
I have for instance, I think for the whole of my life been conscious that I come from a migrant family, that we were newly arriveds, johnny come latelys and we were, when I was a child, reminded often subtely and not so subtely, that our right to be regarded as “ real “ Aussies had not been granted and was not recognised.
Much of my experience in growing up in rural NSW was affected by that. My parents were English, they spoke with pronounced accents which of course emphasised our difference. My parents highlighted our difference, and I often think they did so deliberately and perversely, my father, for instance, very publicly supported the English when they played Australia in the cricket, and without a hint of embarrassment my mother and father not only derided rugby league but followed soccer, known in those years by all my school friends as wog ball. As confirmation of our un Australianness, in addition to the universal assumption that we never washed ( I see with dismay that Teresa Gambaro has had that particular dog whistle out again recently) my father refused to ever drink beer ( not even on Anzac Day after the march) but would drink wine instead.
I have no doubt that the settlement experience of the more recently arrived English migrants to Australia is more benign than that of perhaps any other nationality and while we nevertheless were still made to feel that there were major question marks about the legitimacy of our claim or right to citizenship our intergration was generally welcoming and positive. My experience, has nevertheless given me an insight to the stories that others, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Iranians and Afghanies and the other two hundred nationalities that make up Australia must have to tell.
That there are occasions, some quite outrageous-such as the Cronulla riots- others more insidious-where the legitimacy of the citizenship of some Australians is questioned or challenged or explicitly opposed by other Australians is of course, to say the least, odd when one acknowledges that in the 224 years since the arrival of the First Fleet and the annexation of Australia by Great Britain there have only been eight generations of us and of course every single one of us is either a migrant or a descendant of a migrant. We are all, in fact either migrants or refugees. I was born in Australia 60 years ago, at Gundagai a quintessentially if not the quintessential Australian town, and as a resident of Australia for sixty years I have now lived here for more that a quarter of the time that Australia has been occupied by Europeans.
That European settlement of Australia occurred only so recently adds I think to the lack of any sense of self awareness in those who claim the role of guardians of our shores, arbiters of the right to citizenship or indeed the right to decide or define what it is to be Australian.
These are questions that are raised by the celebration of Australia Day.
Australia Day is a very symbolic day for our nation. Its symbolism is all the more important because the date and the day carry quite different meanings for members of the very diverse Australian community.
On this day, the 25th of January, 224 years ago, a now famed fleet of eleven ships, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Port Jackson, the natural harbour of Sydney and anchored offshore from Sydney Cove, now Circular Quay. They went ashore the next day and there established the first non- aboriginal settlement on the Australian continent. A land which was then defined as and treated as “terra nullius” or as land that was empty and unoccupied.
Australia was of course occupied. It is now believed in fact that in 1788 Australia was inhabited by approximately 300,000 aborigines and had been occupied by them for somewhere in the order of 46,000 to 50,000 years.
Australians, just like each of us here tonight have had much time to reflect since 1788 about the meaning and significance of that very significant January 26th at Sydney Cove. Australia Day will be regarded and celebrated, or not, by each of us in different ways depending most likely on a whole array of personal, life time, experiences.
I am aware for instance that many Aboriginal Australians refer to Australia Day as Invasion Day or Occupation Day. Indeed my observation is that as each year passes more and more, not less indigenous members of our communities are inclined to characterise Australia Day in these terms.
This is obviously to be regretted. It would surely be desirable for this particular conflict to be resolved. That we could find some way of achieving a reconciliation between indigenous and non- indigenous Australians in the celebration of this day.
It is moot I think that this issue has been a subject of public discussion in Australia since the time of that first settlement. The famous French explorer and navigator Nicolas Baudin wrote to Governor Phillip Gidley King in 1802 about the fairness, a concept encapsulated by generations of Australians as the greatest of Australian values as “the fair go , of the annexation of Australia. He said, and I quote:
“I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments, a land seen for the first time…”
He went on to question how it could ever be considered right to claim the soil of a people who belonged to the land, just as the land belonged to them and saw their birth.
At the time that Australia was “claimed” by Britain in 1788 it had been continuously occupied by a people for in the order of 50,000 years. I am proud to be Australian. A first generation Australian. My wife Robyn and her extended Australian family are rightly proud of their long and significant history as pioneers of European settlement. They have been here for all eight generations since the arrival of the First Fleet. There are people in Australia whose family has not one not eight but thousands of generations of uninterrupted occupation of Australia.
If you were a member of one of those families what would your reaction be to a national celebration based on the day that your people, your family, were dispossessed of all and any rights to their land and home?
The answer to that question has for many indigenous people led them to suggest that it is not a day which they feel they can celebrate. I think most of us have no difficulty in accepting why they would feel that. Even if we accept that it is not their dispossession that we are celebrating. There are, nevertheless, regular calls to change the date we celebrate Australia Day. I am not convinced that that is feasible or realistic. I certainly do think that this is a serious piece of unfinished business between indigenous and non indigenous Australia that will continue to inhibit full reconciliation.
I don’t know what the answer is but it is an important issue that I think we have tended to gloss over perhaps in our enthusiasm to express our love of Australia and to celebrate the great things about our communities and our country.
And It is indeed a magnificent land we live upon, and a strong community in which we choose to live to work and play. We have much to celebrate but I think it is a good thing to maintain a debate or a conversation over what the 26th of January really means, and how we should celebrate it, or indeed, what it is we are celebrating and even whether the date is in fact the appropriate one to celebrate our national day.
The debate itself does allow us to acknowledge some historic falsehoods and it does explore the deep question of reconciliation.
For example, in the words of Hugh Mackay, social commentator, and I quote:
“Aborigines are one of the smallest cultural and ethnic minorities in our society. If we can’t find a pathway to reconciliation between the 98 per cent and the 2 per cent, there is no hope for us. The way we define that pathway, and the speed with which we move along it, will be the measure of our civilization.
All we have to remember is that each of us wants to be taken seriously. Each of us wants to be heard. Each of us wants our needs, our values, our points of view, to be taken into account. That is all that reconciliation has ever been about. The challenge is actually tiny, and it has little to do with ‘past generations” : it is a matter of insisting that the values we hold up as being characteristic of our society should be extended to embrace all Australians.”
I agree, and I hope all Australians will embrace those sentiments during the national debate, just commenced, about the amendment of our Constitution to remove provisions that are racially based.
The proposed Constitutional amendments represent a significant milestone along the road we have travelled since 1788 in relation to the recognition of Indigenous Australian.
I discovered just this week, in fact while doing some reading in preparation for this speech, a very personal, and certainly confronting, anecdote of just where we were on that path in the early days of colonisation. It is from memoirs written by a member of my family. It relates to Robyn’s great grand- father ( 7 times removed ) William Gray ( born in 1805,the first Australian born member of the family, the son of Elizabeth and John Gray, both convicts ) and was written by his son William John Best Gray. This extract was published in the Warwick Daily News on 17 June 1903 . I quote
“At this time (1838) my father was employed by Mr Howe as a stockman on Carroll Station and saw his cattle ( in charge of three white men and a black boy)…move off to newly acquired pastures on the Mcintyre. The stockman in charge of Mr Howe’s cattle was Thomas Crompton who had become a free man. He was the first white man to form a cattle camp on this side of the Mcintyre River….
The blacks were very numerous and were killing cattle every day, and it was no unusual thing to see the stockmen come home with two or three spears in his horse, and he could consider himself lucky to get home at that.
Crompton was an extremely cruel man who treated the aborigines without mercy. He is reported on one occasion to have killed twenty of them on one day.
On another occasion he was going up the river to Yetman and he did not take any firearms with him, and on the plain near Tucker Tucker he saw a whole tribe crossing. They were shifting over towards the Severn. As they had all their women and children with them, he knew they were not on the warpath and he charged them with no other arms but a stockwhip and drove one of them like he would drive a bullock and secured him for the night, and the next day he drove him about thirty five miles to a station named Crageen. My father was living there at the time as a stockman where he chained the black up for the night. He was going to take him and deliver him to Mr Commissioner Meehan at the Peel River. Before he left our place the next morning, my father persuaded Crompton to secure the black in some way, so they placed a rope round his neck and round the horses neck that Crompton was riding and tied his hands together with some strips of hide.
In these early days, when all this new country was being taken, there were very few men on any of the holdings but were convicts, and good trustworthy servants they were. It would be a good thing for the squatters and farmers if they could get as good men today, but such servants as they were are a thing of the past, like many other things that have passed from us. Whatever property is entrusted to them was safe in their hands, and there was little crime committed in those days. A murder was a thing you never heard of, that is one white man killing one of his own colour. “
Hugh Mackay refers as I quoted earlier to “values we hold up as being characteristic of our society”. There are of course many values that we, as a group , believe embody the true Australian spirit or our values. Values do, thankfully, change over time. There would be some disagreement, I presume, among us about what values might be on such a list today and there would certainly be strong disagreement among us about the extent to which we individually and collectively maintain or respect,or should retain, those values.
On this Australia Day we should , however, be proud that we live in a great democracy where these national conversations about our past and future are able to take place. I think our democracy and the institutions that support it are probably the strongest in the world. And we should celebrate that, and our diversity and rejoice in the strength and honesty of our institutions, including the press.
Australians value justice and we respect the law. We work hard. We have a sense of humour and a love of fun. Yet there are many things we take very seriously, some such as sport we perhaps take too seriously.
We are grateful for the fact we live in a community in which most people are confident they can do and achieve anything they want. I have had occasion to reflect on whether in my own case, had I been born in England and my parents not migrated to Australia I would ever had the opportunity to lead a Government. I have also wondered if I would have had the opportunity to attend University .
In similar vein, it is, I think inspiring that migrants are significantly represented in all our Parliaments and in leadership positions in all our major institutions. In which other country in the world would the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force and of a number of other Governments have, at the same time, all been migrants. I would be surprised if it is something that has ever occurred elsewhere.
In Australia we are also able to cherish the fact that we can express our views and enjoy our freedom.
Australians have also traditionally believed in a” fair go for all”. We have a strong tradition of egalitarianism and we have a proud history of defending and protecting the vulnerable and those weaker than ourselves.
And throughout our history-with notable exceptions-we have actively promoted tolerance and embraced diversity.
It is with this proud heritage in mind that we need to ensure we have the courage and the determination, as occasion demands, to acknowledge the erosion of these values and to defend them .
I have always been, and always will be, proud to be Australian. My love of Australia is strong and unconditional. It is because of that pride and the depth of my love for my country – of what it has been and what it might yet become- that I feel so passionately that we must not just protect the legacy we have inherited from the service of all those Australians that have preceded us but that we must be determined to improve on, expand and enhance it as our legacy to future generations.
Is Australia Day then an appropriate day on which to also dwell on any current or contemporary behaviour, or Government policy or national or local action. that may cause us disquiet or which we think not reflective of the values that we think of as “characteristic of our society”. Could or should Australia Day become a day rather like New Years Day’ on which we resolve, not to change those aspects of our private lives or character that we decide we feel we might change or improve, but a day on which we individually and as members of our different communities go further and reflect on the values inherent in our communal, national and public personality and resolve to engage, with all the processes available to us, to change those that we believe are not consistent with our history or our traditions.
The blunt at times unpalatable fact is that each of us at different time feels disappointed, even shame at behaviour or actions that are anathema to our personal sense of justice or fairness or to the values we ascribe to and believe that Australia stands for.
I have for instance consistently expressed my deep opposition to certain policies pursued by Australian and State Governments on issues like the invasion of Iraq, the treatment of refugees, discrimination against gays and lesbians, prisoners rights, abortion and indigenous disadvantage. I do not believe that aspects of our respose on each of these issues is consistent with our broad understanding as Australians of what it is we stand for. It may be that some of you would disagree with me about some of these issues and vice versa. That is not the point. Having said it is not the point, is it really possible that turning a boat full of refugees around in the middle of the ocean can ever be characteristic of Australian values?
My point is that as we reflect together, on Australia Day, on what it means to be Australian I believe we should ensure we look ourselves collectively in the eye ,and do a quick and honest appraisal of what we see, and if there are things that do not respect our history and traditions that we commit to seek to restore the values in which we take great pride.
It strikes me that failure to do so risks, for us as a nation, being characterised by other harsher and sinister values.
Or is Australia Day a day on which we agree, so as not to detract from a valuable and justified celebration, to ignore the elephants in the room- at least until another day.
Let me conclude on what is I think a lighter note. Even if not, it is, unlike my turgid prose, a beautiful piece of writing.
Henry Lawson , while living in London, and obviously home sick, wrote a short essay about, of all things, the swag. It is published under the title The Romance of the Swag. It is in reality an essay about Australia. It was written about one hundred years ago. He talks about Australia and Australian values in a way to bring a tear to your eye. I love Henry Lawson and his descriptions of Australia and his image of Australians. I think I keep hoping that they are true. That that is who we are. I can’t bear to think that if he were alive today he would write anything different.
This is a tiny bit from the Romance of the Swag.
“The Australian swag was born of Australia and no other land-of the Great Lone Land of magnificent distances and bright heat; the land of self reliance, and never give in, and help your mates. The grave of many of the world’s tradegies and comedies-royal and otherwise. The land where a man out of employment might shoulder his swag in Adelaide and take the track, and years later walk into a hut on the gulf, or never be heard of any more, or a body be found in the bush and buried by the mounted police, or never found and never buried-what does it matter?
The land I love above all other not because I was born on Australian soil, and because of the foreign father who died at his work in the ranks of Australian pioneers, and because of many things. Australia! My country! Her very name is music to me. God bless Australia! For the sake of the great hearts of the heart of her! God keep her clear of the old world shams and social lies and mockery, and callous commercialism, and sordid shame! And heaven send that if ever in my time her sons are called upon to fight for her young life and honour, I die with the first rank of them, and be buried in Australian ground.
But this will be probably called false, forced or maudlin sentiment here in England, where the mawkish sentiment of the music halls, and the popular applause it receives, is enough to make a healthy man sick. And is only equalled by music hall vulgarity. So I’ll get along.”
Happy Australia Day
Professor John Stanhope