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Australia Day ambivalence

Back in 1788 on 26th January, the First Fleet of British Ships arrived at Port Jackson, New South Wales, having landed a few days earlier at Botany Bay. The British flag was raised right there at Port Jackson by Governor Arthur Phillip and the previous inhabitants were summarily and officially dispossessed. The First Fleet comprised six convict ships lead by two Royal Navy escort ships. There are varying accounts of the number of convicts who arrived in the First Fleet but I conclude after looking at a number of relevant sites that over 700 convicts arrived of whom about a quarter were female.

Whose celebration?

There are two aspects of "Australia Day" that inhibit me from feeling euphoric about this date and what it commemorates. In a way, it’s a story of defeat for many people involved. It was a transfer of ownership and the beginning of the colonisation of a whole continent This defeat included my own ancestors, who arrived mainly from Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the first half of the nineteenth century, forced out by inadequate opportunities in their lands of origin and aided by their own adventurousness.

Australian ecology trashed despite its attraction for brilliant natural scientists

For the incumbent population of the continent, of course this beginning was and remains an unmitigated disaster, for which the term genocide can be used without reservation. The day also marks the beginning of environmental interference and degradation on a massive scale and the extinction of unique species. This environmental ruination occurred despite the fact that naturalists, including Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin, had valued Australia’s fauna and flora so highly that they travelled to the ends of the Earth to study it.

Environmental destruction is an ongoing and accelerating disaster for the continent. In the last 200 years woodlands, grasslands and forests on a massive scale have been destroyed, or modified for human use Precious rivers on the driest inhabited content have been dammed (Snowy Mountain Scheme) and siphoned off for irrigation (Murray Darling river system) all for human use - agriculture, energy and mining. There is even talk of turning the north of Australia into “the food bowl of Asia.” Imagine the wreckage to natural systems that this will entail!

Public misinformed on priorities

As an academic paper states (see above reference), information on the decline of Australia’s environment is documented in piecemeal fashion in local state of the environment reports. It should be news which is broadcast to us as an emergency but instead we must go searching for it. This does not make it any the less true or any the less dire for the people who live here now and who will live here in the future. It is equally as or more important for the public to know about as the road toll or the latest murder.

Australia’s beginning as a modern nation was sad or devastating for many, exciting for some, and for others a mixture of both. Should not the celebration of an “Australia Day” be postponed to such a time as when Australia actually becomes a place that takes care of all on board? We are a long way from this simple but essential notion. It would seem that the original inhabitants were far more advanced in this direction, living close to nature and although having their own impact, taking far better care than those who literally took over.

We cannot reverse what has already happened, but can only affect things from today onwards and hopefully in the right direction.

Postpone Australia Day until we really have something to celebrate

Let’s postpone the national day of celebration to one when a future Australian government makes some important decisions. I suggest the following: to salvage a sustainable future from the jaws of environmental destruction, to give the Aboriginal people the means for self determination, to eradicate homelessness, to put in place an environmentally sustainable population policy as a matter of priority and to make science the most important decision adviser in national and local decision making.

Then will have a day that all of us can celebrate.

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What British Colonialists did to Australian Aborigines may make you sick to your stomach (BBC)

The Facebook page linked to above, contains an embedded video featuring John Pilger. - Ed