By Dr KEVIN DONNELLY – Senior fellow at the ACU’
The announcement by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to overturn the decision by the Scott Morrison government to punish local councils for refusing to hold citizenship ceremonies on January 26 has reignited the debate about the significance of Australia Day.
Indigenous activists condemn the arrival of the First Fleet as an invasion leading to genocide.
ABC broadcaster Stan Grant, who describes himself as a “proud Wiradjuri man”, describes the arrival of Europeans as the nation’s “original sin”. A sin that still exists after hundreds of years and that will continue to stain innocent generations for years to come.
In the Australian national curriculum students are told the convict settlement “was viewed by First Nations Australians as an invasion” leading to “dispossession and the loss of lives through frontier conflict, disease and loss of food sources and medicine”.
While there is no doubt the establishment of the penal colony and its gradual expansion led to Aborigines suffering dislocation, disease and violence at the same time the reality, compared to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is that it’s wrong to describe European settlement as an invasion.
The Admiralty’s orders to Captain Arthur Phillip stated, “You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an Intercourse with the Natives and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all Our Subjects to live in amity and kindness with them”.
The fact Phillip took no reprisal after being speared and that convicts were punished when they ignored Phillip’s orders to treat any Aborigines encountered with respect also proves how wrong it is to describe the penal colony as an invasion.
As noted by Watkin Tench, one of the marines who arrived with the First Fleet, “all ranks of men have tried to effect it (to coexist peacefully with the Aborigines) by every reasonable effort from which success might have been expected I can testify”.
It’s wrong to emphasise what the historian Geoffrey Blainey describes as a black armband view of history where future generations and recent immigrants are held morally responsible for a supposed invasion they had nothing to do with.
While many denounce Australia Day as Sorry Day and argue there is nothing beneficial or worthwhile about January 26, the reality is that was the day Phillip raised the British flag in Sydney Cove proving to the French, who had recently arrived in Botany Bay, this was a British colony.
Unlike the French, who were soon to experience the violence and terror of the 1789 revolution, we were a colony that inherited a political and legal system drawing on the Magna Carta and Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England that embodied essential rights and freedoms.
A colony that also drew on Enlightenment values such as liberty, reason and tolerance that help explain why the British were the first to abolish slavery. Such was the strength of the anti-slavery movement Phillip argued in the new colony “there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves”.
Proven by the arrival of the King James Bible and the first church service held on February 3, 1788, by the Reverend Richard Johnson, Australia’s foundation is also deeply imbued with Christianity.
Central to Jesus’ teachings is what St Paul describes as the belief “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”.
Concepts like the inherent dignity of the person, the right to freedom and liberty and a commitment to social justice and serving the common good are biblical in origin. While not always followed, over time such Christian teachings have ensured Western societies like Australia are beacons of freedom in an increasingly hostile world.
One of the mantras employed by Aboriginal activists is that now is the time for truth-telling. The same applies to both sides of the debate. Rather than condemning the arrival of the First Fleet as an invasion leading to genocide, it’s time to tell the truth.
The evidence proves, notwithstanding the eventual violence, dispossession and disease following the colony’s expansion across the Blue Mountains, the original intention was to treat the Aborigines fairly.
It’s also true since January 26 1788 Aborigines have benefited from European settlement proven by the right to vote, to be treated equally before the law and decisions like Mabo guaranteeing land rights.
While representing 3.8 per cent of the population, it’s also true Aborigines receive approximately $30b annually in government grants, subsidies and payments.
It should not be ignored that before European settlement, instead of being the First Nations, there were hundreds of different Aboriginal tribes and violence and warfare existed as it always has among other cultures and throughout history.