by Charlotte Pordage


The new Meat and Livestock Association Australia (MLAA) Australia Day ad has been hailed as “progressive” by many for its attempt to celebrate the modern diversity and multiculturalism of contemporary Australia.


And while this is important in a world of Islamaphobia, increasingly closed borders, hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers and growing nationalist movements, unfortunately it’s missing the point. Despite what the ad would like us to believe, the initial contact between the First Peoples of Australia and the First Fleet wasn’t quite so amicable.


January 26 marks the date Captain Phillip first raised the Union Jack at Sydney Cove to start a penal colony and, in essence, the founding of what we now know as Australia. For the indigenous people, this was the start of decades of slaughter, theft and dispossession, where families lost not only each other but the rights to their land and to practice their culture.


It’s hardly surprising that for most indigenous Australians, Australia Day is a day of deep loss and trauma, a day that commemorates the near-extinction of what is considered the oldest living culture on earth.


The ad opens with two indigenous Australians having a barbecue on a beach, before featuring the arrival of a number of different cultural groups keen to partake in the festivities.


There is no mention of the Aboriginal genocide or Aboriginal culture, just lots of good humour and jolly interactions, that some members of the indigenous community feel trivialises the violent British settlement of Australia.


And it’s easy to understand why when you consider the legacy of colonisation for indigenous people, which includes many regional and remote indigenous communities living in extreme poverty, indigenous Australians imprisoned at a rate 15 times higher than that of non-indigenous Australians and suicide as the leading cause of death for Aboriginal young people between 15 and 35 years old.


Perhaps a strength of the ad is that it acknowledges that part of the problem is that many Australians refuse to have a conversation about what is happening now, let alone what happened in the past. The fact that refugees and asylum seekers are imprisoned in offshore detention centres with no idea of how long it will take for their claims to be processed, men still kill on average one women a week and same sex marriage has yet to be legalised.


In light of this, the values portrayed in the MLAA’s ad of embracing all cultures and everybody being made to feel welcome are all a bit of a farce. It’s an aspirational statement rather than a true reflection of Australian society, particularly in the case of indigenous communities.


The ad makes no mention of Australia Day, leaving some Australians upset by the idea that they should be ashamed of what their national celebration actually represents. Leader of the One Nation party, Pauline Hanson, has slammed the ad for suppressing Australian identity “to make other people coming in feel good”, not realising that her idea of what it means to be Australian is based on whiteness. Such unwillingness to face up to the past mimics the way that the British romanticise their empire,


A 2016 YouGov poll revealed that 44 per cent of British people were proud of the British Empire. The grim reality of what life was really like for many of those countries subject to British rule is rarely discussed. It’s rarely taught in English schools because it’s all a little too uncomfortable, the idea that atrocities such as the Kenyan concentration camps, Aden’s torture centres, the Chinese “resettlement” and the Amritsar Massacre were motivated and maintained by racism.


In 1774, slave owner Edward Long published a book called The History of Jamaica, in which he denounced Africans as irredeemably inferior and perhaps not even human. Though lacking any first-hand experience, he dismissed the continent as the source of “every thing that is monstrous in nature”, his authority coming from the fact he had spent 12 years in the Caribbean.


Of course, Long wasn’t the only one. In 1937, Western Australian Chief Aboriginal Protector A. O. Neville declared “are we going to have one million blacks in the Commonwealth or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia?”


Several years earlier, the Aborigines Act came into force, which allowed indigenous people to apply to “cease being Aboriginal” and then have access to the same rights as “whites”.


While the world has moved on significantly since these distorted racial theories first came into public discourse, ideas about race continue to live on, albeit in much more subtle forms.


If reconciliation is our aim, then we must stop denying the deep psychological, societal and linguistic damage caused to Aboriginal culture by ingrained racist beliefs and the forced assimilation of indigenous people into white society.


It’s time to stop glossing over the treatment of indigenous Australians, past and present. It’s time to have an open and honest conversation about Australia Day, however uncomfortable that might be, and try to understand the ongoing pain experienced by many indigenous communities on that date.


As indigenous rappers, A.B. Original, put it:


“Nah, you watching tele for The Bachelor
But wouldn’t read a book about a fuckload of massacres?”

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