Something about Australia Day

Something about Australia Day

This morning, I was running by the river with the 6 am crew at our running club. It was more like limping for me, but that's another thing altogether. As we approached an area that was cordoned off for a fireworks show, the path traditionally dedicated for runners and walkers was diverted to the cycle track.

Now, I have good friends who are cyclists, so I need to be careful here, but the idea of a cycle highway suddenly becoming a mixed-use path doesn't necessarily meld with their cultural sensibilities, nor their sense of entitlement. As cyclists passed our group of runners, there were mixed reactions: ambivalence, defiance, annoyance, and even an inclusive, welcoming smile. Ok, I made that last one up for the sake of the narrative.

Only 500 metres later, I turned to head back home. It meant retracing the whole diversion. I started thinking about Australia Day and the events that might happen within and beyond our household. Given our proximity to the river, we've frequently had a meal with a bunch of friends before wandering down to the fireworks en masse (usually brandishing Zooper Doopers).

I'd triggered the possibility of this internal conversation half an hour earlier when I watched this video with Nerelda Jacobs. I'd walked out to meet the other runners with moist eyes - her thoughts giving far greater clarity to mine.

I'm not sure how the two paths becoming mixed-use fits here, but somehow it does. For tens of thousands of years, this land on which I now live, call home, and was running upon, had traditional owners: the Whadjuk Noongar tribe.

I am a fly-by-nighter in the long and continuous habitation, association and celebration of this land. It wasn't mine, but my predecessors called it so because a volitional deviation was made from their otherwise separate path.

Suddenly it was deemed mixed-use.

There's a delightful version of this story of path-merging where mutual enjoyment and respect was the glue of this new relationship. Unfortunately, that story doesn't apply here.

What we did instead was to assume that this path was one for the taking. Otherwise vacant. Terra Nullius. Nobody's land. And anyone we found on this 'uninhabited path' was viewed as an aberration. It wasn't until 1967 that we'd even recognise the land's traditional owners as forming part of its population.

My lineage is not attached to this land. I got bored at about the fourth generation on, but it winds up somewhere in the south of Scotland. My ancestors arrived by boat, probably as convicts or pioneers seeking a fresh start at best. I don't spend time pining for Scotland. I'm ambivalent to it and have never visited. Which is kind of the point. This land is not intrinsic to my identity. But it is to our indigenous people.

Somehow, despite the atrocious beginnings to the story of white settlement in Australia, indigenous people have welcomed us on to their path. Some were disgruntled, some defiant, some annoyed. Some offered an inclusive, welcoming smile. We exchanged their welcomes and their fears with assimilation, imprisonment, enforced slavery and a stolen generation.

I love my country. I am proud to call Australia 'home'. While I'm not nationalistic, I'm parochial. Even if I found myself watching darts on television, I'd probably end up rooting for the Aussie over his red-cheeked English counterpart. But to be a proud Australian includes an acknowledgement of things which sadden me. There are many things my nation has done and is doing for which I am not proud.

Part of the notion of a shared-use path is giving way and making way. Not because it's all sorts of idyllic for me but because it dignifies and acknowledges the other.

One version of disrespect is projecting one's ambivalence onto another's concern. "It doesn't matter to me so it shouldn't matter to you".

How could we possibly understand the hurt, pain, and disregard when it's not ours to feel? Well, we call it empathy. Caring enough about the other to share their burden or load even when it's not yours.

Acknowledging the journey of another doesn't necessarily say, "I did this to you" any more than it does to the one empathising with a victim of domestic violence, but it says I hear you, I see you, I'm with you, and I'm FOR you.

The Bible encourages us to weep with the weeping and rejoice with the rejoicing. Not necessarily because we inhabit those spaces ourselves, but because by entering into the joy and sorrow of another, we are bonded. We vare glued by triumph or adversity - even when it's by experiences foreign to us. Some call this 'communitas' - a common bond through shared experience.

I do not have the lived experience that our indigenous brothers and sisters have endured, but I can regard that experience by dignifying their pain. By choosing when I rejoice over this country and allowing that choice to be moderated by the reality of others.

I hope we change the date of Australia Day soon. The third Monday of January seems a reasonable alternative. And I hope we never cease celebrating the privilege of being part of Australia nor wrestling with the tension of what that has meant for those who called Australia 'home before us, nor those who would dearly love to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted.


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  1. 3

    nice write up. love the shared path analogy. i feel we are very lucky to call this land our home. celebrating inclusively, absolutely needs to happen.

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