Can January 26 ever be the day that all Australians unite and rejoice in our sense of collective belonging?

by Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner | 25 January 2021
OPINION: I want to celebrate being Australian and I want to celebrate our remarkable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander civilisation. But every year I brace myself for the 26th knowing that it is not the day we can do this.

In the months, weeks, days leading up to this January 26, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to belong to a place, a country and to the culture of a nation. I’ve thought about how a collective belonging can cause us to feel euphoric in our connection to place and one another. I’ve thought of how that feeling has the power to bring us closer together, to see beyond the tensions and fear of difference, and at its strongest can unite us in shared ideals and common purpose.

So, I ask myself, can January 26 ever be the day that Australians, all Australians, unite and rejoice in our sense of collective belonging?

I want to celebrate being Australian and I want to celebrate our remarkable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander civilisation. Because celebrating our living culture and heritage should, of course, be fundamental to Australian identity. But every year I brace myself for the 26th knowing that it is not the day we can do this.

It will always hold too much living pain and trauma for our peoples. It is historically tied to the structural inequalities and harms of the present and that is a truth that the 26th will never extinguish. But in the denial of this history that is so blatant on that day it makes the wounds worse.

Do I believe it is possible to find another day that reflects the spirit of Australia? Absolutely I do. We have all felt those moments, where there is a simultaneous rush of unity amongst millions of us. These are glimpses of what Australia could be—in 1967 when Australians stood up for us to be counted; when we finally achieved marriage equality and partied into the night; and those images from the past before I was born of Australians dancing in city streets at the end of the second world war. Most of all, I felt it, when Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic flame and won the race.

I want to feel that joy that Cathy sparked on a day that actually represents us all. And I believe now more than ever that symbols do matter in taking us on a journey where we can unite in truth without feeling threatened. Symbols can, and should, reflect the best of who we are and hold us true to our ideals. In the hardest of times, they can remind us not to give up, and to be who we want to become.

When we are honest with ourselves, whoever we are, do we truly believe that our Australian symbols—the day, the flag and the anthem—achieve this for us? I know there is much more to Australia, even in the promise of what Australia can become, than what is captured in our current emblems.

At this time in history, where the mounting global challenges we face—pandemics, climate change and poverty—pose such cataclysmic threats, the need to unite, within and across nations, is urgent. As COVID swept the globe it rapidly exposed the fragility of divided nations—where inequalities and injustices have taken root and grown within the deep fault lines of systemic racism and all forms of discrimination, pushing peoples and communities ever further apart. Australia may not have felt the full force of COVID, but it is far from immune to these entrenched underlying issues.

It seems cliched to say that when a large-scale crisis hits, it can be the catalyst to unite us. Still, over the last year we’ve all experienced the support of neighbours, the emergence of communities of care and how Black Lives Matter protesters—so many from such different walks of life—have reached out for each other, longing for the type of connection that can end the brutality that erupts from disunity.

It is not that our current turmoil is any kind of solution to injustice. It has brought unimaginable grief and in so many cases intensified political polarisation. It is why the world is calling out to heal old and open wounds and mend division. And sometimes it is only within crisis that we can see clearly the acts of compassion and inclusivity, grounded in our desire for tolerance, equality and justice that show us who we want to be, which hold the potential for change.

But it takes courage, hard work and commitment to grab and act on that potential, knowing it can set us on a better course. Australia has done this before in its post-war reconstruction, in helping to end South African Apartheid and often becoming one of the first signatories on global human rights treaties. In these moments ideals and symbols can be forged that truly reflect national spirit.

So today I ask that we rekindle that spirit of courage and leadership and consider why the date, the flag and anthem need to change as part of our journey of national healing and unity. Symbols alone won’t bring the changes we need, but they can be the vehicle to confront the injustices and inequalities, with their structural causes so knitted into the history represented by January 26.

When I think of the spirit of my fellow Australians, I know it is only a matter of time before we embark on an inclusive and respectful conversation about who we really are as a nation and the symbols we need to carry us into the future where we have the maturity to accept our history and truly live by the values we treasure.