Australia Day has become politicized like never before.
That is not entirely a bad thing. The controversy over Australia Day is making us learn a bit more about our history and think more deeply about our past and what it means to be Australian today. I know it is doing this for me and has stirred up a greater sense of patriotism.
I support keeping the date of Australia Day on January 26 but the situation is complex. In this article I am going to lay out some of the issues I see going forward.
The concept of 'identity politics' has become prominent in the vocabulary of political and social discussions in recent times. The debate centers around whether people should see themselves as part of identity groups based on race, religion, class, gender and sexuality or as individuals and perhaps as members of one global humanity.
The growing global identity politics discussion has recently manifested in Australia in the controversy over the date of Australia Day.
Some parts of the Aboriginal community and their allies view January 26 as being a contentious date for the public holiday because it marks the beginning of white invasion/settlement in Australia. They see the date as hurtful to their ethnic identity and want the date changed.
There are also more radical elements that have called for getting rid of Australia Day altogether. Warriors for the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) for example is an Aboriginal nationalist group formed a few years ago that refuses to acknowledge the Australian state and is calling for decolonization. They are a small group, but with 19,000 members on Facebook they are a significant minority.
On the other side of the debate is outspoken Aboriginal leader Jacinta Price who also believes she is advocating on behalf of large segments of the Aboriginal community. She sees things from the libertarian centrist viewpoint that identity politics is harmful and divisive and that Indigenous and Non-indigenous Australians should focus on what they have in common rather than reasons for divisiveness.
The inevitability of identity
I think Jacinta Price is an inspiring Aboriginal leader who is doing very important things and my sentiment is with her heart for reconciliation but the hard realist in me believes it is somewhat more complicated than that. Although I agree with much of the classical liberal tradition she is a part of I am not sure it is as simple as saying we just need to get rid of identity politics.
While the ethno-nationalism of WAR seems extreme most of us instinctively recognize that there is some truth to this. Even those who most long for unity in this nation know that the Aboriginal people are a separate identity. They are a people with their own heritage and culture that differs from mainstream Australia and it is right and just to give them some reasonable space to protect that.
Why else would we allow them to have their own flag representing solidarity with their ethnic identity?
On the other hand many ordinary Australians are increasingly seeing themselves as outsiders. They are getting fed up with a political order and media that seems to represent everyone but them. They feel that a message of white guilt is continually being pushed by activists and many powerful and influential people in the media.
Does white Australia have a right to feel some pride in who they are and where they have come from? It is a valid question. The message of white guilt is not necessarily any more healthy than any negative sense of self conception that Aboriginal people may have.
In the same time that left-wing activism has been increasing in Australia we have also seen the rise of nationalist groups like United Patriots Front and True Blue Crew who are made up of mainly white working class men who feel they are not being represented in the mainstream.
Aboriginal people certainly have the right to defend their people and they should. But the Change the Date movement needs to understand that they are conflicting with other groups that feel that their identity is also under threat. These groups are growing and things may not result in the peace that Change the Date activists envision.
We must seek national unity while accepting different identities
Can we have an Australia that values group differences while at the same time recognizing we are all human beings first and foremost?
We have to be realistic about the fact that this country is shared by different groups with different histories, cultures and worldviews. Not everyone is going to see eye to eye and some compromises need to be made.
It seems to me that the tension of sharing a continent between the nation created by British settlement and the Aboriginal identity will require accepting the reality of identity but at the same time seeking to move towards peace, understanding, tolerance and good will towards all regardless of ethnic background.
If identity is inevitable it needs to be based not on resentment and bitterness between different groups but making positive change for all. In a country with a complicated past I believe God wants us to wrestle with this tension always seeking to uphold the values of love, truth and justice and knowing that our most important identity by far is as children of God.
Conor is from Adelaide South Australia. He is a gardener and is involved in ministry. He loves God, music, reading and thinking deeply about philosophy and current events in the world.