Fireworks versus truth, reconciliation and justice

On Wednesday 24 August the Fremantle Council voted 10-1 to drop its annual Australia Day fireworks in recognition of how sensitive this date is for many Indigenous Australians.

It's worth re-stating the obvious. Modern Australia; like Canada, the USA, New Zealand and South Africa began as a colonial-settler state founded on the violent dispossession of its indigenous people. But Australia is the only one of them to hold its national day on the very date that marks the beginning of that dispossession.

It takes a special kind of wilful ignorance and callous disregard not to see why so many Indigenous people find this confronting, and frankly a stubborn racism to keep insisting that non-indigenous Australians get to to decide whether or not Indigenous people should have a problem with the date.

Dropping the fireworks may only be a small symbolic step, but if Australia can't have an honest discussion about its origins then we will never be able to tackle the underlying causes of disadvantage. The Don Dale detention disaster is but one example.

The furious and frantic reaction of the commercial media and other critics shows how much they don't want us to have that discussion. In the short term there is no prospect that their howls of outrage about "political correctness gone mad" will overturn the Fremantle decision, but they sure as hell want to stop it from spreading.

Recent creation

Australia Day is a pretty recent creation. The name was adopted across the country in 1935 and it was only in 1994 that all states and territories marked it with a public holiday. The 1988 bicentenary celebrations really kick started the phenomenon of publicly funded concerts, fireworks, cricket matches and all the rest. The Fremantle fireworks have only been going for the last eight years.

As a teenager I joined the crowds on the foreshore to watch the flotilla of tall ships sail into Sydney Harbour in 1988. This was the official "culturally sensitive" event. Radio station 2GB funded a rival re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet, recalling the 1938 show in which Aboriginal people from western NSW were press-ganged into playing the role of the Cadigal retreating in the face of the Union Jack. Across town was the Invasion Day rally, one of the biggest protests in Sydney since the Vietnam Moratorium.

This year an informal discussion among Fremantle councillors quickly revealed that a majority were no longer happy with the fireworks. Why this new consensus? There's probably no one thing, but it reflects a growing realisation that January 26 can not be made into a smiley happy inclusive day. By its very nature it is divisive. The booing of Adam Goodes, withdrawal of funding for remote communities, offensive remarks by Tony Abbott about "lifestyle choices" and widely shared Stan Grant speech all galvanised opinion.

The decision has strong support in the local Noongar community, and their contributions during public question time at the council meetings where the issue was debated were very moving.

Herbert Bropho described the sound of the fireworks as evoking the first musket shots to fell indigenous people. Mervyn Eades, the managing director of the Ngalla Maya employment service called on the City of Fremantle to set an example for councils around the country, as did young Noongar man William Collard. Joe Northover backed the decision and called for a memorial dedicated to Aboriginal lives lost in defence of their land.

Corina Abraham who is leading a legal challenge to the Roe 8 freeway also spoke in support. She is a descendent of victims of the Pinjarra Massacre and people who were detained in Fremantle's historic Round House on their way to the Aboriginal death camp on Rottnest Island/Wadjemup.

The local flag-bearer for the fireworks has been the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce, in particular one of its board members Ra Stewart. Their complaint is that there was insufficient consultation with local businesses who benefit from the visitors the fireworks attract. While there's debate about just how much local small businesses really benefit, the fact is that the City of Fremantle has increased the number and scope of festivals and similar events that attract people to the city all year.

While the Chamber's official line of objection is around consultation and the supposed economic benefits, Stewart has vigorously intervened in the political debate raging on social media such as this contribution to the Freo Massive Facebook page:

"We've said sorry - I will say again I'm sorry for what our indigenous people have endured. I have the greatest respect for their culture, knowledge and wisdom and believe we can learn so much from them... But I'm kinda ready to hear 'I forgive you' from our indigenous community and think that would be a wonderful thing for reconciliation."

Historical denial

The notion that what's holding up reconciliation, both symbolic and practical, is a collective "I forgive you" by indigenous Australia is an example of the historical denial that is the very essence of the problem.

The outrage of the Murdoch press was entirely predictable, horrified that we were "cancelling Australia Day". Of course the council can't cancel it, everyone will still get their public holiday. But what it might do is hold a free concert at the Fremantle Arts Centre with a great line up of indigenous artists and a range of other activities instead of blowing over $140,000 on fireworks in under half an hour.

Murdoch's reach is pretty limited in WA, but Seven West Media stepped in to prevent the contagion from spreading. The Weekend West devoted four pieces to attacking the council decision, ranging from Good Cop - an editorial titled "Well meaning councillors got it wrong with Freo fireworks", through to Bad Cop - an idiotic cartoon suggesting that Christmas and Easter would be banned, and that married heterosexual couples would be asked to maintain a low profile.

The cartoon is poisonous because there really are people out there that think middle-aged heterosexual white men are the oppressed and down-trodden of the earth. I can you show the messages I've received from supporters of proto-fascist outfits like Reclaim Australia ranting about "Abos on welfare" and declaring they will "exterminate you traitors like insects" for interfering with the newly invented "tradition" of Australia Day, or the video by the United Patriots Front threatening the Mayor with "illegal fireworks".

The really slick move by The West was to dedicate a news article and a half page opinion piece to criticism of the decision by Aboriginal MP Ben Wyatt, WA Labor's shadow minister for Aboriginal Affairs. He asserted that the move would set back reconciliation because "...it is the Aboriginal people who will wear the blame" for an unpopular decision.

Consider the defeatist logic of this argument: If a local government, which is under no obligation to do anything for Australia Day, says that it no longer wants to hold fireworks because that's not a very sensitive thing to do, it will only make other people unhappy, especially those who already have an unsympathetic view of indigenous Australians.

In similar vein Wyatt concedes that "...January 26 highlights a deeply unsettling issue for modern Australia" but that, "We have not yet reached the commonality required to change the date." He goes on to argue to that our society is not inclusive enough of Aboriginal people or yet reached the consensus that would be required. He longs for "...an historical point of reconciliation and transcendence from our colonial roots."

But that is not what is happening. Perhaps Wyatt hasn't noticed that Seven West Media, News Corp and his opponents on the other side of the parliament have absolutely no intention of "transcending our colonial roots". They will fiercely resist this every step of the way, just as they always have. How does Wyatt expect anything to change if no one makes the first move or tries to advance the debate?

It's worth pointing that many local Labor Party people have supported the decision to drop the fireworks, including one of my council colleagues. Wyatt embodies the dilemma of the Labor leaders who want to appear progressive but don't want to be "wedged" by the Liberals for being "unpatriotic".

Before the council vote the Mayor and I met with two Noongar elders, Aunty Mingli and Uncle Ben Taylor. They both expressed their wholehearted supported for the move. They were more worried about the backlash we would face than anything they would have to endure.

I guess they've seen a lot worse. Uncle Ben told us of his own experience of the days when Aboriginal people in Fremantle were subject to a 6pm curfew, and how his own uncle was treated as a non-citizen after returning from service in World War II.

Given what they've been through, acknowledging our past and starting to act on it is the least non-indigenous Australia can do.

[A slightly edited and abridged version of this comment piece also appears in the Green Left Weekly]

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