I don’t understand January 26 parties, but there is one day ahead I’ll be celebrating

Jan 25, 2024

I’m an upbeat person. There’s a lot to be thankful for and a lot to be hopeful about. But being an Aboriginal person in Australia sure requires some seriously thick skin.

As a nation, Australia has found countless ways to essentially say to First Peoples “we don’t respect you, we’re not willing to consider your feelings, or listen to your wants or ideas, and your rights don’t matter to us”.

Last year was particularly bruising for us, but we don’t need a referendum to be reminded of the many attempts to put us in our place – such opportunity rolls through every January when the shallow and toxic political posturing about ‘Australia Day’ arrives.

Ok, some people felt Constitutional reform was a complicated issue to grapple with. But it’s harder to believe that they can’t get their heads around the simple question of when is a good time to throw a party?

There shouldn’t be anything complicated about it. You find a suitable date that works for everyone who you want to celebrate with and then you go for it.

If your best friend has something planned that night, you might try to find another date.

Or if say, that night happens to mark the beginning of a dedicated and persistent attempt to eradicate your friend’s entire family and wipe their culture and language from the face of the earth, then maybe you’d think twice about throwing a party.

If you want to celebrate January 26, I certainly won’t be inclined to come along. I’m not going to feel wanted or welcome.

Perhaps that’s your intent.

But if like so many politicians, columnists and radio hosts, you start sentences like “we all want to be inclusive and help close the gap with our Indigenous Australians” then why wouldn’t you be willing to even consider how we feel or what we want?

You’re either being deceptive about the first point or oblivious to the inherent and hurtful contradiction of your position.

It’s not a date to celebrate. The fact that more and more people can recognise this fact is a comfort to me. That businesses are willing to consider and reflect changing public sentiments is a welcome development.

People tell us to ‘get over it and move on’ as they rub salt into our wounds – wounds caused by the very thing they want us to celebrate.

The forcing of our people off our lands, the bloodshed, the ripping apart of our families, the herding us into settlements and controlling every aspect of our lives, may have happened in the past, but the impact of those actions continues to have significant effects today.

We are still living with the unfair disadvantage and harm caused. The racism that underpinned those decisions hasn’t evaporated and harmful decisions are still being made to us.

We all want to get on with creating a better future together, but to do so, we need people to be willing to talk with us. To listen to what we have to say. To start to reckon with the brutal unfairness of the past and how it has created conditions that our people are still facing today.

It’s frustrating to watch politicians like Peter Dutton and Pauline Hanson try to whip people into a frenzy about a shop choosing not to stock Australia Day thongs or whatever it was that fewer and fewer people are buying anyway. And it’s infuriating to see them try to pit us against one another.

But there are also politicians who give me hope that things will get better.

Particularly here in Victoria where we have a Government willing to have the difficult conversations that need to be had. One that has invested in a process that ensures we can come together with respect and on equal footing.

The process is called Treaty.

It’s about coming together, recognising our differences, talking about the problems, and agreeing to negotiate ways to make things better.

The journey has been underway in Victoria since 2016. The First Peoples’ Assembly is in its second term – we’ve held two elections where all First Peoples were invited to choose who they want representing them.

You see, we believe that when it comes to Aboriginal communities, the experts are Aboriginal people. That’s why we’ve created a framework that will directly empower Aboriginal communities to implement their own solutions at a local level.

Later this year we’ll sit down with the Victorian Government to start negotiating a timetable for transferring the power to make decisions about Aboriginal communities, culture and Country back into Aboriginal hands.

That’s a day I’ll be celebrating.

It will be a day that will mark a new chapter in our history in which First Peoples and newer Australians can come together with respect and discuss how we want to share this great place we all call home.

Rueben Berg is a proud Gunditjmara man and Co-chair of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria.

This piece was first published by Crikey