The country’s burned. Homes are destroyed, lives are lost and landscapes forever changed. Now, torrential rain — with a hurling of hail — sweeps across the East Coast, providing relief on the fire-fighting front, while presenting new safety concerns and problems for wildlife.
Australians have been left bemused by the destructive, yet contrasting, weather and by-and-large remain enraged at their elected political leaders. The future seems most dire for those who’ve lost everything due to the bushfire crisis, the drought, the floods or who’re experiencing the looming dust storms. And the rest of us, who are unscathed, are aware of the emerging reality that these incidents are hallmarks of what will become the norm regarding weather phenomena.
The current national sentiment is one of exhaustion, as these natural disasters and their effects seem unabating. Yet, an upcoming national holiday — one that is usually mired in controversy and contrasting opinion — could inspire a shift towards a more progressive and inclusive future; a new-look Australia.
The Australia Day debate calls into question the appropriateness of marking our national holiday on the anniversary of colonial introduction. Since the Day of Mourning protest in 1938, the public critique of Australia Day has been subject to an ever-growing “wokening" with academics, cultural and community leaders and also everyday Australians deconstructing what the national day represents and what cultural agenda it serves. Many traditionalist die-hards lament this shift and relegate it as a symptom of meddlesome history wars. And to a number of others who dwell somewhere in the middle, January 26 is merely a day off work.
Now, Australia Day isn’t the only high-profiled topic generating contrasting views. Climate change is most certainly the frontrunner in 2020. Over the last few months of fiery hell, spectator commentary has been split regarding whether the Commonwealth or state governments were behind the ball on offering or requesting assistance, whether the Prime Minister’s response was disproportionately abysmal, and what, if anything, could have been done to prevent such tragedy by way of complex land management, hazard reduction policies and adhering to climate change warnings.
While such debate raged in mainstream and social media, countless Australians breathed hazardous levels of smoke, the countryside’s been razed by lethal fire and swamped with torrential rain and we’re wondering how good Australia actually is? Australia was certainly not prepared and was under-resourced for fires of such scale, ferocity and persistence — in spite of numerous warnings. So too, Australia’s leaders were not prepared to present with statesmanlike grit. Australia’s politicians and population alike are trying to make sense of how such infernos could persist by perhaps the oldest means disposable: issuing political blame. In answer to how ‘good’ Australia is at present, well, it isn’t very good at all.
Frankly, Australia is a mess right now and all the blame and hindsight in the world won’t be able to restore the forests, sacred cultural sites, rebuild homes and infrastructure and reverse the deaths these fires have wreaked. Nothing will, except for hard work and efficient use of funds.
Fixing the broken hearts of the bushfire victims is one of the most complex issues at hand. Not only are people rightfully grieving the loss of their loved ones, havens, unique wildlife and ancient sites, they now question their future and how equipped we really are to live on one of the most hostile continents on Earth. They question their intergenerational political loyalties and their views on climate change.
Like the landscape, wildlife populations and incinerated townships, the soul of Australia has changed forever.
We’re getting closer to January 26 — Australia Day — and are still no closer to seeing the back of wild weather, let alone to rebuilding its destruction. And, of course, January 26 brings with it a public holiday and perhaps a chance for people to relax and reflect. With the country physically, philosophically and emotionally torn, yes, a public holiday is timely, but is such a holiday appropriate?
It’s well-established that the historical bases of Australia Day are inaccurate; James Cook wasn’t the first European to “discover” Australia and the proclaimed notion of terra nullius has been legally disavowed. Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet actually landed on the East Coast days before the 26th. Australia wasn’t even federated as Australia on January 26, rather January 1. Furthermore, Australia Day has been held on numerous and different dates throughout history across the country. So, with none of what Australia Day is supposed to be about historically accurate, why do people nowadays hold on to January 26 with such blind passion? It’s because of a desire for a sense of nationhood and comradery.
Looking at such desires one can say that there isn’t much comradery across our polarised society, aside from the front-line of bushfire recovery efforts. Lines in the sand around climate science, politics, the burnt and the unburnt have been drawn, as well as there being an ongoing bias against Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples and other minority groups. To uphold a true sense of nationhood, holding Australia Day on January 26 is just continuing to cause unnecessary division; division that may sadly shroud the plight of disaster-stricken Australians this year.
In truth, calls to change the date aren’t simply just calls to change the date of Australia Day but are calls to change attitudes. That is to change attitudes towards Indigenous peoples and our way of looking at our country’s origins and to change, all-round, for the better under a national identity steeped in diversity.
The bushfire crisis has similarly begged us to change our attitudes towards more tangible things such as land management, resourcing emergency services and preparing for large-scale evacuations due to disasters caused by a volatile and worsening climate. I believe that out of the ashes of these horrific bushfires, and mud of these floods, can spawn a new kind of Australia with a new kind of Australian identity; one more compassionate and one more prepared to cast off the cloaks of political ignorance and contentment.
Firstly, this January 26, I hope for natural disaster victims, emergency services and charity personnel are afforded some reprieve and rest. Secondly, I hope the rest of us can take stock of who we are as diverse peoples, the important role we all play and how in times of tragedy we see the real spirit of us, as a collective. I hope that this year we all seek to imbue those qualities (above the ocker characteristics laid on so thick) in either celebrating or abstaining from the traditions of January 26. But this year, in a tumultuous January, we have an opportunity to hold a vision for the future of our country to a higher standard than ever before and consider, what with the changes to Australian society over the years, a rebranding of sorts.
Jack Wilkie-Jans is a contemporary artist and freelance writer from North Queensland. Jack is from the Waanyi, Teppathiggi and Tjungundji tribes.
NITV presents a selection of dedicated programming, special events and news highlights with a focus on encouraging greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives on 26 January. Join the conversation #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe