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Australia Day 2017, Let's Celebrate

On 26 January, I plan to celebrate Australia Day with a few a friends. I will reflect on what a great country Australia is. I will also reflect on the significance of that day for Aboriginal Australians in terms of the British arrival - invasion - which resulted in much violence and turmoil for Aboriginal people. But more importantly, I will reflect on the marvellous progress made in race relations as evidenced by our celebration of Aboriginal people, their culture, achievements and contributions to making Australia what it is, and how this can be advanced even more.

But not everyone views Australia Day so positively, and I have written about this before. There are some sectors of the Aboriginal community who at this time every year engage in fairly pointless Australia Day protests. Sadly, the myth still prevails that people who celebrate Australia Day are celebrating the harm that was done by the British invasion and that celebrations on this day cause distress and offence. That is simply not true. While the origins of our Australia Day celebration may be tied to colonisation, our reasons for celebration today are far different – a great country, mateship, a day off work, food and drink, and great Aussie weather.

At about this time last year, that Malcolm Turnbull was reported as saying that he was “urgently seeking novel ideas to break the deadlock ahead of what is expected to be another damning Closing the Gap report.” For Australia Day 2017, I think it is appropriate to discuss some novel ideas. I will discuss what many people already know but have been too afraid to say given the politically correct environment we live in. This PC environment, I believe, is doing almost as much harm to Aboriginal people as drugs and alcohol. It stifles debate. So before continuing, let’s decide that we will not be gagged from saying what needs saying just because some people will take offence.

First, let’s abandon the myth that government should and will – and indeed can - fix everything for Aboriginal people. This is not true for the general population so why should it be true for Aboriginal people? Twenty-six years ago, the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody stated: “There is no other way. Only the Aboriginal people can, in the final analysis, assure their own future.” That doesn’t mean doing it alone - as government surely has a significant role to play - but it does mean the people must be actively engaged in finding and implementing solutions if there is to be any closing of the gap.

To suggest that government need to fix everything communicates the message that Aboriginal people are weak. This belief likely creates a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby many Aboriginal people in effect see themselves as so weak that some are distressed because January 26 is called Australia Day.

Second, is the similarly extreme view that Aboriginal affairs is solely the responsibility of Aboriginal people and only they must be allowed to voice opinions. Let me be clear on one crucial matter – Aboriginal affairs is every Australian’s business. Aboriginal people are Australian citizens with the same rights as other Australian citizens. For far too long the ‘Aboriginal industry’ has attempted to keep its doors closed while it conducts its ‘secret Aboriginal business’ funded by the tax payer. We are all in this together - so let’s start working together.

Third, there is a need to challenge the largely unquestioned belief that Aboriginal people are vastly different from other Australians, and as such require special treatment. While there may be some differences between Aboriginal Australians and their non-Aboriginal brothers and sisters, the commonalities, I believe, far outweigh any differences. All people have the need to live in safe and clean environments, need an education that equips them for the modern world, need to engage in some form of service to their local and broader communities, and need access to basic goods and services such as modern health facilities and fresh food.

This belief that Aboriginal people are a different species with a culture that requires endless special programs has kept an Aboriginal industry thriving and built academic careers – but achieved remarkably little for most Aboriginal people on the ground. Where real cultural differences exist they should be respected, as they are for others, but differences must not become stumbling blocks that prevent Aboriginal people from participating in the mainstream. So many successful Aboriginal people have already proven that they can participate without compromising their cultural identity. They have made us a better Australia, so let’s follow their lead.

Finally, breaking the deadlock will require leaders and others of influence – both Aboriginal and other Australian - to make unpopular decisions. It will require reallocating resources to where most gain is to be made. It will also mean discussing some elephants in the room: drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, child neglect. Now, sadly, attention is given to distractions such as a treaty, sovereignty, and allegations of universal racism.

Unless these ideas are embraced in 2017, very little will change. Too many Aboriginal people will continue to live in the most impoverished and unsafe environments. We know what works. Let’s not be distracted by ‘quick fixes’ and protests, however specious. Aboriginal people are Australian citizens and are entitled to what Australia has to offer. But let’s abandon the ‘us-them’ mentality in favour of an ‘Australians All’ mentality. Because until it is all of us there can be no justice. And as long as Aboriginal people are diminished, all Australians are diminished. On this Australia Day, please remember that are all in this together.

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