Despite being one of the first countries to welcome each new year, Australia too often feels like we are behind the rest of the world. It may be the reason we are in this timezone — as if someone up there took pity and gave us some sort of head start. The events of the past summer, in which vast swathes of Aboriginal country have been burnt, a billion animals killed and thousands of homes destroyed— including those belonging to many Aboriginal people — has shown the world who we really are.
The Canberra press gallery— with a few exceptions —had spent most of the past decade playing personality politics as successive Prime Ministers were dumped and replaced over climate policy. It meant that it was up to the international media to brush the dust off a blowtorch rarely used in our own country. Media outlets ranging from The Atlantic to The New York Times to the Washington Post have all delved into the overbearing presence of the Murdoch empire and the compliant media that has fuelled our brand of coal-fired politics. Robinson Meyer wrote in the Atlantic that there may be little change despite the crisis: “And so maybe Australia will find itself stuck in the climate spiral, clinging ever more tightly to coal as its towns and cities choke on the ash of a burning world.” This reputation is entirely earned. The world is now looking to us as a cautionary tale — one in which apocalyptic scenes are now broadcast on the nightly news.
This of course is not news to Aboriginal people, who have been fighting for Country since the first wave of Invasion into black lands. On January 26, the rest of the country celebrates the symbolic beginning of that invasion on Australia Day — a day recognised as one of deep pain and grief for many Aboriginal nations. Many Australians now recognise it too and there has been a lively debate around ‘Changing the Date’ to a day that could bring us all ‘together’, even though Australia is still deeply invested in the oppression of Aboriginal people perpetuated through the justice, child protection, health, education and housing systems. The division is not one driven by Aboriginal people, but by the powers that continue to treat usas less worthy and disposable, that tear apart families — including mothers from their children — and keep us alienated from traditional lands and waterways. There could never be a combined day of celebration because right now, there is nothing to celebrate. The fires that still burn over large swathes of Country should be a reminder of that.
January 26 does not just symbolise the pain and trauma of our people. It is the beginning of the pain and trauma of this Country over the past 200 years, that has culminated in these disastrous, distressing bushfires. In many parts of this continent, the Country has not heard the languages that have been spoken for tens of thousands of years upon it. It has not been cared for in the way Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years had cared for it. Instead, it has been ripped up and carved up and the waterways and rivers, particularly in NSW, are drying up. In many areas, for example in Borroolloola in the NT, sacred waterways have been polluted by big mining, the fish now contaminated with lead.
Caring for Country has been taken out of black hands for so long, and mining has been the predominate interest — with big mining so powerful it has scuttled national land rights legislation and still blocks Aboriginal nations from their right to walk the country of their ancestors — that we are now going down an even more scary reality. As Country changes, so does our capacity to care for it.
My close friend and colleague Martin Hodgson, a Yuin lawyer and writer who lives high on the hills near Tathra, and who just two years ago fought the devastating bushfires that forced locals running to the beach, is this weekend again bracing for another bad day. The fire threat is not yet over. He told me how his country had changed by forces outside their control, and how the ancient knowledges used for thousands of years were maybe now, no longer applicable.
Settler colonialism has not only deprived blackfellas of country, but also of the knowledges we need to preserve and maintain it, and not only to preserve, but to grow this knowledge with the country as it changes. What happens when the blunt impact of climate change affects our country and these traditional knowledges can no longer be used?
January 26 is not just about people, it is about Country. The logic of Australia Day, that relies on amnesia, on forgetting, on blanketing the past and moving forward in ‘unity’ with no justice, ultimately harms this country. Aboriginal people were killed and removed from this land under genocidal policies to justify the theft of land and pave the way for white profit. And it is not just a story told in Australia, but one across the world, where Indigenous knowledges have been downgraded, diminished, destroyed or co-opted, rather than centred. It is a colonial story, one exemplified in the alcohol-soaked jingoistic displays every year. Australia Day ultimately is the story of erasure — the story of settler-colonialism.
But in order to confont the crisis facing country, Settler Australians need to change the way they view their place in it. Aboriginal writer Tony Birch writes on this in a Sydney Review of Books essay:
“…we should recognise the extraordinary importance of Indigenous estate to the nation’s ecological future. The relationship between colonialism, capitalism and environmental degradation and a consequent link to climate change is unambiguous. In Australia, the usurpation of land not suited for wide-acre agricultural farming had led not only to the appropriation of Indigenous land, but also the destruction of local ecologies and the wasteful use of natural resources such as water and soil. Jon Altman’s assessment that ‘the brutal colonisation and political marginalisation of Indigenous Australians can be understood as a conflict over land and resource rights’ accurately reflects the extent of violence utilised by colonial forces in an effort to dispossess Indigenous people of country. This is not a conflict located in the past. The consequences of colonialism reverberate in contemporary Australian life.”
And these consequences have not just affected us, but like the smoke, has drifted across the world. Australia Day is not just a trivial issue. It is just one part of the most important crisis we are facing today.