Every year since we came to live in Brisbane, we've taken advantage of the public holiday on the 26th of January to explore wild places within 100 kilometres or so of the city. We soon learned that many Queenslanders leave town for their favourite haunts. They make an early start, to bag parking space, barbie and picnic bench. They don't seem to mind being close to many others doing the same thing in the same place: the herding instinct appears quite strong.
We're the opposite. We want wild places to ourselves. We're basically antisocial, but mainly it's because we want to be able to hear birds call and animals rustle.
The first year, we made a leisurely start down the Cunningham Highway, marvelling at how little traffic there was. By the time we reached Lake Moogerah it was rammed. Watery places will always be so.
With each passing January, it has seemed more and more appropriate to find as remote a spot as possible to appreciate the land more like it was when the original Australians lived without foreign intervention. A time before timbergetters and miners and farmers who tried to impose alien practices on harsh country. One reason is that the thing about Australia we celebrate most is its landscape and fauna and flora – from unspoilt beach to unforgiving desert – and I spend a lot of my time advocating for their protection and conservation. But the second and more important reason is that I feel increasingly uncomfortable celebrating a past event that is remembered from a totally different perspective by those here ab origine. And that discomfort is greater now we are citizens ourselves.
Of course, we use trails I suspect were originally cut by loggers and are now enjoyed by off-roaders.
How and when 'Australia Day' should be celebrated has become a much hotter topic of late; opinions more polarised. The best things about Australia vary from one individual to another; from one time of year to another. While more and more people acknowledge that 26 January was 'Invasion Day' and massive wrongs still need to be fully acknowledged and atoned, there are those who believe Kevin Rudd's apology* in 2008 was enough, and we should all move on. How convenient.
Those who remain to be convinced that there's a lot more work to be done to achieve reconciliation should listen to Stan Grant's speech** during an Iq2 (Intelligence Squared) debate on racism last October, but only released the week before Australia Day, rather provocatively some say. His words came directly from the heart, not pages of text. Take note of the comparative figures of premature death and juvenile incarceration. Observe the faces of the audience, which speak further volumes. They know how much more there is to do to truly make Australia the country of the fair go.
I am aware how much effort is required. I felt uncomfortable in Alice Springs in the face of widespread evidence of disadvantage: I visited the wonderful Desert Park, but saw nothing of the Indigenous town camps. They are the last places travel or government sites recommend you go. In Yulara and Uluru, I bought beautiful Indigenous wooden artefacts but they were sold to me by white distributors. As was the art we purchased in The Alice. What would I have said or done had it been otherwise? I only think of this now, but I was probably subconsciously relieved at the time.
I am ashamed of the fact that in six years I have only had two meaningful conversations with Indigenous people. The problem is, I have no idea what to do for the best. But not celebrating the 26th of January with champagne and fireworks seems to be a very small step in the right direction.