When Arthur Phillip first planted the union jack on the salty shores of Port Jackson, the now-much-maligned sea captain and inaugural governor of New South Wales could never have imagined this inhospitable island at the arse-end of the world would one day be a proud and prosperous nation in its own right.
In all of the discourse about Australian history, the constant argy-bargy between self-confidence and shame, we often forget that we are an accidental country.
Unlike the very deliberate Puritan settlement of America, those first European settlers were not concerned with the creation of a utopian society but with carrying out their orders and establishing a penal colony to dump the (mainly Irish) convicts that were spilling out of overcrowded prisons from Dundee to Devon.
Because they never set out to create a functioning society, the incentive to negotiate peace with the existing inhabitants was far lower, unlike Canada and New Zealand where the handshakes came (relatively) early and atrocities were (relatively) scarce.
I don’t point this out in order to make excuses. So let me be clear: It was on this day, January 26 1788, that life changed irreversibly for the original inhabitants and custodians of the land, and in many ways changed for the worse.
What followed was nothing short of systematic genocide and atrocities which continue to blight Aboriginal communities – and indeed the entire nation – today.
For this period in our history, and for the atrocities that followed for more than a century after settlement, we – all of us – should be deeply sorry. Not because it is politically correct to apologise, but because there is a direct causal link between how good our lives our now and how bad the experience was for generations of Aboriginal people.
But this was also the day that our national character, our values and folklore, started to form. Those early, struggling years of penal servitude fermented a larrikinism and egalitarianism that are still evident.
This was the day that we started to fall in love with the sun and surf, the flies and floods, the sand and the smoke – the ancient land that the Aboriginal people hold so dear.
To say that this was a bad day is to say that Australia’s very nationhood is illegitimate.
To change Australia Day’s date until, say, Federation, erases the years of settlement, the convict past that still leaves a lasting legacy.
While some fringe dwellers and fashionistas may conclude that our national fabric is only one of hate and bigotry, deep down even they know this is not true. They know that – despite the past scars of adolescence – Australians enjoy freedoms and a quality of life almost unrivalled on this Earth, and that this is something worth celebrating.
The great irony is that so many of those who, once a year, hashtag their white guilt or engage in viral squeals of ‘Invasion Day’ do so while lying on a beach in the sun on their government-mandated public holiday, sipping their coconut water or cold craft beer and generally enjoying the many fruits of life that the events of January 26 1788 have directly provided.
Of course, many Aboriginal people do not enjoy these aforementioned freedoms or qualities of life to the same extent. This is one of the most acute and shameful problems we face as a nation.
But denigrating the very premises of the Commonwealth of Australia does little to improve the status quo for indigenous people. In fact, it actually makes it worse.
By fuelling the notion that Australia’s founding was abhorrent, we continue to insist that our conversation on Aboriginality is focused on injustices of the past, rather than solutions for the future.
Rather than crying that our national story is corrupt, we should be placing Aboriginal culture more firmly at the centre of our identity, while still remaining rightly proud of the nation we have built.
Rather than encouraging disunity and marginalisation, we should be doing all we can – even at this late hour – to welcome indigenous people into our national discussions, not just about their own fate but across a range of policy issues, and into mainstream Australian life.
Instead of hash-tagging and band-wagoning, maybe these armchair critics could spend some time in Aboriginal communities, or donate funds to Noel Pearson’s good work in North Queensland, helping to spur the economic growth that may actually see tangible improvements in living standards, and with them, a resurgence of confidence and self-esteem.
In some ways bagging out Australia Day, and confronting the horrors of the past is less painful than confronting the dire circumstances of the present in remote and inner-city Aboriginal communities. This is where our efforts should lie.
Many Aboriginal people use the term ‘Survival Day’ to reference the 26th – a far more positive and progressive message than the ‘invasion’ narrative.
Without doubt, Australia’s enduring Aboriginal culture – against all odds and despite the best efforts of the governing class for well over a century – is one of the great survival stories of humankind.
In order for its subsistence to be assured, much more needs to be done, but inciting hate and disenfranchisement and a sense that life was better before 1788 and will never be good again is counterproductive and ultimately only leads to a continued cycle of poverty and resentment.
We can acknowledge the sins of the past, and develop better solutions for the present and future without being ashamed of our foundation stones.
Aboriginal people survived in the face of adversity, but so did the convict settlers and the waves of migrants who have come since.
For those of you not too sanctimonious to enjoy yourselves, Happy Australia Day.
Published on 25 January 2016