'What are you actually celebrating?' Indigenous elder says Australia Day debate must continue

Larrakia elder June Mills

Helen Davidson in Darwin June Mills says changing the date is not enough but it would be a start to making people aware of the devastating effects of the first fleet’s arrival “If I was going to change the date, it would be June the 3rd, which is the day when terra nullius was struck down – that’s a day worth celebrating,” says the Larrakia elder June Mills. “Because all the lies we’ve suffered from began with terra nullius – that this was nobody’s land – which was a doozy.” Australia Day is over for 2017, but Mills, an activist, singer-songwriter, and elder for the people of the land where Darwin now sits, does not want people to pack away the conversation with their flags for another year.


Changing the date is not enough, says Mills, “but it is a start to [restoring] reality”.


“The most important thing is to be educated on the reality. When you celebrate the arrival of the first fleet in 1788 on to the shores of Botany Bay, you need to know what happened to the people who were living here.”


The Guardian met Mills in downtown Darwin on Australia Day, beneath a large mural of the Aboriginal flag and the West Papuan flag flying side by side. Mills is a little late and some of the paint on her newly created protest T-shirt is still wet, spelling out “decolonise” across her chest.


There is a strong history of activism in Darwin but it has dwindled. It held no march for Invasion Day, despite the groundswell of support prompting record crowds in other states.


“Lethargy, apathy, it’s got a good grip on us here in the Territory,” says Mills.


“There should be a massive turnout but there’s not. They are down, beaten down, by the policies of government. As recently as the Dylan Voller debacle … we are attacked on so many fronts. How much can we take?”


Mills says Indigenous people have “lost faith” in government, citing the intervention, the juvenile justice crisis, high rates of incarceration of all age groups, the funding of non-Indigenous organisations to do Indigenous work, and the collapse of Indigenous bodies.


Despite these issues, much of the conversation around “Invasion Day” this year has centred on changing the date so it does not mark the beginning of more than two centuries of dispossession and violence.


Some, such as the Alice Springs former councillor and anti-violence advocate Jacinta Prince, suggest that these issues are the reason there is not much #changethedate activism in the NT, and “the future is far more important to me than our past”.


Mills recognises that there isn’t widespread support among non-Indigenous Australians yet, and believes that won’t change until there is wider understanding of Australia’s history.


“But we’re only 3% of the population, we can’t do this job,” she says.


“It’s up to the government to really show leadership and sincerity, honesty about the reality of this country and tell the truth, put it in the schools. It’s not going to happen without education.”


There is a momentum of sorts. Perhaps more than any other recent year, conversation about the significance of 26 January as a day to celebrate Australia, filtered through all levels of government and society.


A tongue-in-cheek campaign calls for the national day to be held on 8 May. (May 8. Maaate ...)


On Twitter, mentions of #ChangeTheDate increased 850% on last year. #InvasionDay and #SurvivalDay were up 200%. In the outside world, Invasion Day marches across Australian cities drew their biggest estimated crowds ever.


A.B.Original’s confronting protest track, January 26, came in at No 16 on the Hottest 100.


“Change doesn’t really come from people being comfortable and complacent,” Trials told Triple J.


The head of the prime minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, has written that 26 January has a devastating effect on many Indigenous Australians.


Mills is heartened by the news the former Coalition minister Ian MacFarlane has changed his mind after thinking of his Scottish ancestors, and now feels the celebrations should be moved.


“Good on him. He’s living in the moment, and in reality,” says Mills.


But Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have spoken against changing the date, as did the former prime minister Julia Gillard. The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, has labelled protesters as miserable killjoys who hate Christmas.


Revellers have packed away their flags, and the op-eds and tweets will soon slow. But Mills urges people not to put the issues on the shelf.


“I cannot deny people that want to celebrate, but what are you actually celebrating? Because at the moment when I look at it as an elder from my community, you are celebrating 229 years of murdering our people, criminalising our people.”

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Barnaby Joyce to Australia Day protesters: 'Crawl under a rock'


Malcolm Turnbull says the day is about celebrating diversity after his deputy dismisses ‘people who want to make us feel guilty’. Barnaby Joyce has told people who want to move the date of Australia Day that they are “miserable” and should “crawl under a rock”.

The deputy prime minister made the comments as people held Invasion Day protests around Australia and former Howard and Abbott government minister Ian MacFarlane added his name to those that want the national day moved.


The Guardian view on Australia Day: change the date

26 January – a day that marks the beginning of Indigenous dispossession – is the wrong day for national festivities. Respectful debate is the best way to a solution that will allow all Australians to join the party.

Mick Dodson explained succinctly why he thought Australia’s national day is celebrated on the wrong date after accepting his Australian of the Year award in 2009.

“Many of our people call it Invasion Day … to many Indigenous Australians, in fact, most Indigenous Australians, it really reflects the day in which our world came crashing down,” the prominent Indigenous leader and academic said. 


Malcolm Turnbull’s 2017 Australia Day message – video

Amid debate about whether the date of Australia Day should be changed, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, says Australia is an ‘ancient and modern, old and new’ nation and pays tribute to Indigenous Australians. ‘Theirs is the oldest continuous human culture on Earth and it enriches us all,’ he says. ‘As do the cultures of all our migrants from every corner of the world. Each new Australian adds another thread to our national tapestry, magnificent in its diversity and the most successful multicultural society in the world.’

Most Indigenous Australians want the date of Australia Day changed, says poll


Put an Indigenous MP in charge of Indigenous affairs. It's a good place to start  

Malcolm Turnbull would help end violence in Indigenous communities if he asked Ken Wyatt to take responsibility for the issue. Whether you regard 26 January as an occasion to celebrate modern Australia or see it as “Invasion Day”, “Survival Day”, or just another public holiday, one thing is certain: the shocking rates of violence, family breakdown and incarceration among Indigenous Australians will still be with us on 27 January.

Amid all the celebration – and squabbling – around Australia Day, we need to continue to focus on the immediate, often life-threatening, problems, especially in remote communities, and what can be done to make the communities safer.