26 January is the official National Day of Australia which is called ‘Australia Day’. The day commemorates the establishment of the first European settlement in Australia. On the 26th of January 1788, the first British fleet anchored at Sydney Cove and offloaded the male convicts brought from Europe. They raised the flag of the British Empire on Australian soil in the name of King George III. The captain of the ship, Arthur Philip, set up a British penal colony and the process of White Australia began. As in other parts of the world, colonialism led to the eradication of native social setups and cultures. Historical documents indicate that between 1910 and the early 1970s, 10 to 30 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were separated from their parents. These children were handed over to missionaries and state institutions. Thousands of children were handed over to Anglo-Saxon society which taught them European values and their way of life. Most of these stolen children were under the age of 5. Similarly, there are horrifying tales of the mistreatment and suffering of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and the extinction of indigenous culture.
Today, these indigenous Australians are the most disadvantaged people in Australia. Having a life expectancy 17 years lower than the rest of Australia, as well as many living in third-world conditions, they need empowerment and societal development in every aspect of life. According to a report from the World Health Organisation, healthcare standards for indigenous people are a century behind the rest of Australians. In some parts of the country, the life expectancy of male indigenous people is just 33 years. Lack of education, job opportunities, and other social facilities has led to an increase in crime and gun culture within the indigenous community. Child abuse, rape, and shootings are common crimes in remote areas. The law-and-order situation in remote areas is terrible.
As a result, the first nation (indigenous) Australians view ‘Australia Day’ as a foundation day for the destruction of their culture and centuries-old traditions, and they observe it as ‘Invasion Day’. Therefore, when Australia Day is celebrated by the Australian government and the public with official ceremonies, barbecues, picnics, and fireworks, the first nation (indigenous) people hold protests and rallies and remember the day as the beginning of their dark history.
In May 1995, the National Inquiry into the separation of indigenous and Torres Strait Islander children from their families was established, this inquiry was chaired by Sir Ronald Wilson. In May 1997, a report on the stolen generation, ‘Bringing Them Home’, stemming from the inquiry was tabled in the federal parliament. Exactly one year later, in May 1998, the first national ‘Sorry Day’ was held to mark the anniversary of the stolen children report. The deadline for reconciliation to be completed by the eve of Australia’s federation celebration was abandoned by John Howard in February 2000. Since then, indigenous leaders, community groups, and human rights organizations have raised the issue on different platforms, in seminars, and through public demonstrations.
On February 12, 2008, Kevin Rudd’s government laid down a historic tradition in the Australian federal parliament by ceremonially welcoming indigenous people for the first time in the last 107 years old Australian history. He was handed a message stick that told ‘the story of our coming together’ by indigenous leaders. More than 100 indigenous elders, women, and youth were invited to start the proceeding of a reformed government with a more positive image of Australia. The ceremony combined ancient Aboriginal dances, music, indigenous singing, and traditional performances. The next day, on February 13, 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd added a memorable page to Australian history. He, on behalf of all Australians and the government, expressed ‘Sorry’ to the first Australians (Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders) for all the mistreatments and wrongdoings, particularly to the stolen generation (who were forcibly removed children from their parents) for over 200 years. Kevin Rudd said that Australians now reflect on the blemished chapter of our nation’s history with a true spirit of reconciliation. He said that he would also like to assure the first Australians that it will never happen again.
Today, indigenous Australians must feel more connected and equal to other Australians. While the word sorry was not enough, it opened the door to reconciliation and working together. The Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders need confidence and faith in the government that these rehabilitation processes are to improve their lives and protect their culture and heritage. There is also a high need to focus on youth development programs without wasting any more time.
From John Howard to Scott Morrison, liberal governments have been reluctant to grant more legislative rights to the indigenous community.
In December 2022, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of the Labor government promised to deliver the Voice in the federal parliament through a referendum by December 2023. Speaking to the indigenous community at the Woodford Folk Festival, the Prime Minister said, “This will give respect to First Nation people, and it will enhance both the way Australians see ourselves and the way we are seen by the world.”
There will be differences of opinion across federal parliament, according to the Prime Minister. However, he stressed that he respects everyone’s right to make their own decision concerning the referendum. The Prime Minister urged Australians to consider the generous and gracious request of the First Nation.
The first nation (indigenous community) should have an equal voice in policy and legal matters in the federal parliament. As the Prime Minister said, momentum is growing in Australia across all facets such as local governments, community groups, churches, businesses, unions, and sports. People have joined every state and territory government in pledging support for a constitutionally enshrined voice of the first nation in the federal Parliament. As the noise is already heard in the federal parliament, it is expected that the government insists the referendum is a vote about the moral principle of giving Indigenous people a say over laws that affect them and equally and fairly recognising them in the Australian constitution. The indigenous people hope that the Albanese government fulfills the Prime Minister’s promise.