Australian of the Year Luncheon 2021
Stan Grant - Keynote Speaker
Dr James Muecke AM - Keynote Speaker
DyspOra - Performance
Rosemary Wanganeen - Welcome to Country
Photo credit to asbCreative Professional Photography.
Our national identity and the health of our nation – these two topics couldn’t be more important and more relevant in 2021.
Our keynote speakers were Dr James Muecke AM 2020 Australian of the Year and Mr Stan Grant, Indigenous Affairs Editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
This was a powerful and thought provoking Australian of the Year Luncheon and one that will be talked about for some time. This was also an opportunity to engage with our 2021 South Australian’s of the Year – each of them courageous, determined and inspirational.
This excerpt has been reproduced with the kind permission of Stan Grant from his presentation at the Australian of the Year Luncheon, Friday 11 June, 2021 at the Adelaide Convention Centre.
Stan Grant - Keynote Speech
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Frederick Douglass was born in 1818, his mother a slave and his father most likely the white man who administered the Maryland plantation his family was held on. As a boy he was considered so insolent he was sent away to be ‘broken’ by a cruel overseer in a property reserved for troublesome slaves. He was made to work from dawn to dark and was beaten almost daily. By the time he died he was one of the most famous men in America, a confidant of the rich and powerful, an intellectual, a writer and a devastating speaker. In 1852, a decade before the Civil War, Douglass gave a speech ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July’, it was a fiery denunciation of America, an America that denied its own creed of equality even as it celebrated the date of the nation’s birth. But there was something else here, a profound belief in the hope of America. The hope lay in the Constitution what Douglass called a ‘glorious document’. If America lived up to the full measure of its Constitution, he believed, it would set all people free. As Douglass wrote ‘I do not despair of this country’, within the Constitution was salvation, a document he said ‘entirely hostile to the existence of slavery’. As he wrote ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened, and the doom of slavery is certain’.
I look to Frederick Douglass and ask the same question here, What to the Aborigine is January 26? It is a question that Indigenous people have long posed. There are echoes of Douglass in the Day of Mourning, January 26, 1938. On the 150th anniversary of colonisation the Aborigines Progressive Association organised a protest march through the streets of Sydney, they were turned away from Sydney Town Hall and held a meeting instead at the Australian Hall, but were told they could enter only by the back door. A hundred people turned out, among members of my own family, in what is considered one of the first civil rights gatherings. They delivered a manifesto declaring that ‘This festival of 150 years “so called progress” in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed on the original native inhabitants by white invaders of this country.’ The meeting concluded with a resolution that stated:
‘We, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in Conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th anniversary of the whiteman’s seizure of country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST, against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen in the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and for a new policy which will raise our people to FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.’
Here is a tension that exists today. A celebration of a national day that for so many of the first peoples of this continent, remains a day of pain, a reminder of a history of segregation, exclusion and brutality. But here too was a powerful statement of belief and hope in this nation. That despite our history, the promise of democracy could include even those locked out. Like Frederick Douglass the people who met on that Day of Mourning, believed too that the ‘arm of the lord is not shortened’, that like Martin Luther King Jnr would say decades later, ‘the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice’.
January 26, 2017: my father was to be awarded a special Australia Day honour in his hometown as a respected elder of his community. My father has lived a life at times at the coal face of bigotry and brutality; there have been beatings and dark nights of lockdown in a cell. He has been judged by the colour of his skin, when those would not see the full content of his character. Yet, for it all he has remained a man proud of who he is, and unwavering in his belief and hope that Australia is better than its worst. In his later years he has helped to revive his language, Wiradjuri, teaching it not just to indigenous people but allowing all Australians to share in his heritage. Because to my father, it is all our heritage, as he has told me language does not tell you who you are but where you are. If you are on this land, this belongs to you. My father has been awarded an Order of Australia medal, and a doctorate from Charles Sturt University for writing the first full dictionary of Wiradjuri language.
That evening I spoke to my mother, and she told me of how proud she was of how well my father was treated and what an honour it was to celebrate on that day, when Australians celebrate all that we have made in this country. But my mother told me again, of another Australia. As our conversation often does it turned gently to her life as a young girl, living with her family a black father and a white mother on the outskirts of Coonabarabran in north western New South Wales. On this Australia Day she reminded me of how her family’s tin humpy was bulldozed to the ground, she told me of the constant presence and threat of welfare officers of her brothers and sisters made wards of the state and separated from their family, she told me again of seeing her father led through the streets handcuffed and roped together with other Aboriginal men arrested for simply drinking alcohol. This is her Australia. These are her memories, the memories of wounds. We talked about Australia Day, a day that had been one of pride, ‘it wouldn’t hurt them to move the date’, she said.
Should we move the date? There are those who would want to abolish Australia Day entirely. They reject the very idea of Australia. In 2017 I finally had to answer this question for myself. What did I believe? I was speaking to a group of university students, touching on issues of identity and belonging and how I had lived my life to free myself from the chains of history, to move beyond narrowly defined ideas of who or what I should be. One of the students asked me what I thought about Australia Day, it is a question I have wrestled with, torn between pride in my country and my family’s legacy of suffering. I could so easily have said yes, repeated that mantra that the date is offensive, a reminder of invasion and colonisation. There are times in my life when those words would have fallen easily from my lips. I could speak without thinking. I would have answered. But I know now, we are asking ourselves the wrong question.
Australia is more than a day, it is more than a date – whatever that date may be – moving the date or abolishing Australia Day does not answer the question, who are we? I fear moving the date would only hand it to those who would reclaim it as a day of white pride, turning it into a bombastic day of division. There are those Indigenous people who cling to Nietzsche’s ‘politics of ressentiment’ whose identities are so wedded to grievance that to relinquish their anger would be to lose their sense of themselves, moving the date would not satisfy them..
Here is the question I ask myself: on this day am I meant to be at war with myself? I am Aboriginal on both my mother and fathers side of my family – Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi and Dharrawal. I am the colonised. Yet I am also European. I have Irish heritage. My great great grandfather John Grant was sent here in chains. Banished from his homeland for his part in an uprising against the British – his mother brother and sister were all executed and he was transported here for life. He would never see Ireland again. He had children with an Aboriginal woman and I am here today because of that. I am coloniser and colonised. I have the blood of black and white. I am Australian – yet also impossibly Australian. I have said before I am the view from the convict ship and the view from the shore.
This is my blessing and my curse; I am blessed to be born to a nation that cherishes freedom – the freedom to rail against the nation itself; to question to protest, in our world today that is so rare.. Ours is a nation that struggles with itself, with the worst we have been and whose arc of history has delivered us to a point where we are among the most free, prosperous and cohesive nations on earth. Yet, for all that, I am cursed to be born into the crosshairs of this nation’s past; to carry that burden and see it carved into the skin and the souls of so many of family – some of them broken by this place and others so gloriously and utterly defiant.
For me, there are the words of Albert Camus: ‘Let those who want to, stand aside from the world. I no longer feel sorry for myself, for now I see myself being born’. There have been times when I have indeed felt sorry for myself when the view from the shore was one of unceasing suffering and inevitable doom. No amount of what we would call success of wealth or glory could erase the pain that I have inherited but I have a choice, to see myself as someone with a future to believe that Australia is a place for me too and that we can change it and that we have changed it; those people who came before and refused to accept what they were told; to know their place, those people have changed it.
The story of this country asks us to choose; what do we believe? Must I be cursed like Sisyphus, forever doomed to roll the boulder of our history to the top of the mountain only to return again to the bottom? A nation is a narrative, it is a story, it is what we imagine, it is what we choose. On the one hand there is what the historian, Inga Clendinnen, called ‘springtime of trust’ – those early days of the colony when black and white met each other warily, suspiciously and then there is what the Anthropologist, Bill Stanner and his ‘history of difference’. How we have buried the history of what came after. The frontier wars, the massacres, the disease, the exclusion and segregation. That history of indifference hangs over our country still. It is an indifference to the suffering of the people whose lands were invaded and who remain the most impoverished and imprisoned people in the land,.
Where is hope? I have looked to my family, my people, who have always believed the country could be better in spite of itself. As Camus wrote: ‘We struggle and suffer to reconquer our solitude. But a day comes when the earth has its simple and primitive smile’.
David Malouf, the Australian poet and novelist, has called Australia an ‘experiment’; ‘it has taken us a long time to see it in this light’, he writes, ‘and even longer to accept the lightness, the freedom, the possibility that offers as a way of being’. in his book ‘The land of Dreams’, David Kemp, says Australia was at the cutting edge of these ideas, as he writes:
“If any society was to be based on the recognition of the equality of each individual person, Australia’s historical circumstances and culture gave it the best opportunity to achieve such equality”.
Women, Catholics, Asians, Indigenous people, all have at times been excluded from this dream of Australian liberalism. But one by one the barriers have fallen even as we reach still for the full measure of that equality.
But still we are a nation illegitimate. Still we are in Australia that remains just out of reach. The bones of my ancestors black and white rest uneasily in this ground. I call myself an Australian yet it is a word on which I bite down hard. In that word Australia there remains the bitter aftertaste of or history.
How do we go forward? How do we build a country for all? Who are we? That’s what I ask. For me it is a better question than: ‘what side are you on?’.
Tim Winton wrote: “This country leans in on you. It weighs down hard, like family. To my way of thinking, it is family.’ Yes Tim, it is. Australia is in me. I have left Australia spending two decades as a foreign correspondent reporting the great stories and conflicts of our time – I escaped my country yet always carried it in my heart. I looked back wondering what it is to be Australian and I and returned and I am still looking.
Should we move Australia Day? Perhaps someday, we will. Perhaps some day we will have settled our ‘unfinished business’; but then, nations are forever unfinished; we write out stories in the margins. For now, January 26, is all that we are. It is all that we are not. Australia lives in that tension, when we seek to neutralise that tension, we deny ourselves. Some have said we should commemorate the 25th and 26th of January; we should mark the before and after. I see the poignance and the poetry in that, but it marks an ending and a beginning and I don’t believe in that; we are what became before and what came after. I do not exist on January 25th. What happened on that day when the boats came to stay, that’s what has made me. I live with it all.
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