Weighing Up the Past: Australia’s Bicentennial Scrapbook

“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
― Michael Crichton

This is my third and final post about revisiting Australia’s Bicentenary through through the pages of a copy of The  Australian Women’s Weekly, January, 1988, which I recently found in a local op shop.

In terms of trying to better understand the range of views towards the Bicentenary, I threw together a smattering of newspaper clippings to show a few of the different opinions which were around at the time. This is in no way intended to provide a comprehensive, historical account ….just some voices from the past.

Indigenous poet and campaigner Oodgeroo Noonuccal asked at the time of the Bicentennial, ‘from the Aboriginal point of view, what is there to celebrate?’. In 1987, Oodgeroo returned her MBE in protest against the upcoming 1988 Bicentennial celebrations.http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/IMP0085b.htm

Greg Foleyhttp://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_11.html

“On the same day as the SMH featured its ‘souvenir lift-out, the front page of the main part of the paper featured two major headline stories of Indigenous challenge to the status quo.  The first was a story headlined ‘Torres Strait Islanders back Independence Call” and was about the stirring’s in the Torres Strait that eventually resulted in the High Court delivering the famous ‘Mabo’ decision. The second story was about an audacious plan by Koori activist Burnam Burnam who was in England planning to claim Britain by raising an Aboriginal flag at the same time as descendants of the British were planning their similar action of re-enactment in Sydney. The same report also said that ‘hundreds of Aborigines’ were en-route to Sydney to attend ‘the long march for justice, freedom and hope’.”

On 7th March, 1987 The Canberra Times reported:  “Aborigines may snub bicentenary” and quoted Pat Dodson, National Coordinator of the Federation of Land Councils:

“It will be a national disgrace if the 200th year of our dispossession passes without the proper recognition of our indigenous rights as the traditional owners of Australia.”

The federation called for Aboriginal rights to be recognised in a national treaty or included in the Constitution.[3]

Greg Maher: Woroni (The Australian National University’s student newspaper)

“The emphasis that the Hawke government however, has given to the Bicentenary – that is, concentrating on educational and other initiatives to highlight the Aboriginal situation as the key point of the years activities – makes the Bicentenary worth recognising and supporting and indeed, at least for some, celebrating. The point is that those who propose a boycott say they won’t celebrate an invasion. Nor should they. No Aboriginal does, or should celebrate the invasion of their land and the displacement of their people. This is not to say that they can’t take part, or shouldn’t. As has been outlined already, recognition and support for the constructive message that is attached to the Bicentenary is essential for a reconciliation, for progress in the area of Aboriginal reform and to build bridges of communication with the white population. Of course though, it must be ongoing. How do we achieve this?[4]

In the literary magazine: Bliss, Australian author Patrick White also voiced opposition to the Bicentenary, which he described as a “circus”. Indeed, taking quite a stand, the Nobel Prize winning author refused to have any of his work published or performed during the Bi centennial. More than anything, White says, “it was the need for justice for the Aborigines which put me against the Bi. Very little has been done to give them a sense of security in the country we invaded.[5]

Very much on the other side of the fence, we had John Howard, the then Leader of the Opposition who went on to become the Prime Minister of Australia from 11 March 1996 to 3 December 2007. He said: “Australia’s bicentennial celebration should be an occasion of immense pride, not collective guilt, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Howard, said in Melbourne yesterday.

He told a National Australia Day Council lunch that he was concerned that the bicentennial program urged Australians to reflect “a little too much” on the mistakes rather than the achievements of the past.

“Certainly, all of us need to be aware of past mistakes, but surely 1988 is the year to celebrate where we got it right,” he said.

Australia had been incredibly blessed with good fortune and had a level of freedom few countries could boast.

The Australian achievement was a matter for immense pride.

Australians should not apologise for the fact that their country was European in origin.

“We have inherited European culture, the English language, British institutions and a way of life which is very much steeped in the Western liberal democratic tradition,” Mr Howard said. “Judeo-Christian values have, by and large, provided the ethical wellsprings of our society.

‘To in any way apologise for this, qualify it, pretend it doesn’t exist, or worse still, imagine that it is an inferior quality of life, is the height of absurdity and historical inaccuracy and likely to render our bicentennial celebrations irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of Australians.”

Because of the Aborigines’ prior occupation of this continent, and their continued disadvantage, they deserved special acknowledgment in the bicentennial celebrations. Their disadvantage had to be dealt with in a constructive and remedial fashion…[6].”

It has been interesting seeing how buying a vintage magazine at the op shop has opened my eyes to so many things and made me see the Australian Bicentenary in a completely different light. That said, I have been conscious for some time that celebrating Australia Day on 26th January is not showing sensitivity or compassion towards our Indigenous people who were displaced and so often subjected to horrific crimes of abuse. This is our national shame and we shouldn’t just bury that under the carpet and pretend that nothing ever happened. We can’t. To be honest, it continues as well.

As I wrote in my last post, I don’t know what, if anything, I can do about it personally other than write about it, which does seem a bit lame but we each have our role in the body, in our community and as I have said before, I always hope the pen is mightier than the sword. That through writing we can highlight prejudice and injustice and also love and embrace all peoples.

In this, I join with Dr Martin Luther King (Jnr) and say “I have a dream”. I haven’t quite worked out all the details yet but have joined at least 1000 other people who will be writing about compassion on 20th February, 2015…the UN International Day of Social Justice: 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion. I encourage you to also participate. You can check out the details here:

https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/bloggers-unite-for-a-better-world-1000-voices-speak-for-compassion/

We need to keep working on the foundations laid by trail blazers like Dr Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and see love, compassion and equality triumph!

xx Rowena

[1] The Australian Women’s Weekly, January 1988, pg 7.

[2] The Australian Women’s Weekly, January 1988, pg 7.

[3] The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995) Saturday 7 March 1987 p 9

[4] Woroni (Canberra, ACT : 1950 – 2007) Monday 7 March 1988 p 19 Article

[5] The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995) Wednesday 1 June 1988 p 30

[6] The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995) Saturday 25 January 1986 p 3

[7] http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

3 thoughts on “Weighing Up the Past: Australia’s Bicentennial Scrapbook

  1. Pingback: The Daily Telegraph’s cultural amnesia | Neil's Commonplace Book

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