Friday, January 29, 2010

Days and Rights

My last blog entry was adorned with a santa hat.  It's nearly February now so Purple Orange is really overdue for a fresh posting.  This lapse reflects the apparent fact that all of Australia goes into summer hibernation from Christmas through to late January (this of course would be the optimal time for New Zealand to come in and take over the country while no one's looking, but for the fact that NZ is enjoying the same summer siesta, only with thicker socks).

The country returns to business, for some with a patriotic hangover, the day after Australia Day.  Though I wasn't born in Australia I'm proud to live here, and I am attracted to this idea of a day of national celebration.  However, I humbly note that this day is not without its controversy, given the date reflects the landing of the first fleet which, for many Australians, is a date that marks a period of oppression, pain, loss, exclusion and alienation.

I can't help but wonder whether, in the pursuit of a more inclusive sense of nationhood, it perhaps might be better to put a national day somewhere else in the calendar, to a date that every Australian feels can be celebrated joyously.

And what is the nature of celebration?  Forgetting for a moment that the current date marks the arrival of the first fleet, the sentiment of Australia Day seems to be about a sense of national pride, good living, a feeling of belonging.  Well, wherever the day might appear in the calendar, such sentiments can only truly be celebrated if they apply to everyone.  For many Australians living with disability, there is not yet much to celebrate in terms of good living or a sense of belonging. So it seems difficult to celebrate such sentiments when they do not yet apply to everyone (its a bit like celebrating victory before the game is actually won - disastrously premature).  The Australian Government's 2009 publication Shut Out (click here for a copy) gives clear testimony to the continued experience of poverty and exclusion by many Australians living with disability.  Can we really afford the luxury of such national celebration when so many Australians live a struggle that is not of their making? 

There remains hope. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (click here for a copy) reflects the momentum of the rights movement worldwide, and is an important milestone in the pursuit of social justice, a fair go, for people living with disability.  However, even though Australia has ratified the Convention, the fact is that Australia is the only developed nation not to have a national Bill of Rights, which is a list of the rights that are considered by a nation to be important and essential. The purpose of such a bill is to protect these rights against infringement. 

So here's a thought.  Were Australia to enshrine a set of human rights into its national legislation, rights that echo the above UN Convention, then maybe that would be the moment when Australia truly commits to the value and potential of its diverse citizenry.  Such a moment could, we may hope, herald a genuine uplift in the life chances for people living with disability.  

If so, Australia will truly have matured as a nation, and the date that such legislation was passed would be a most worthy day for annual celebration by everyone.


  1. Thanks for this Robbi.

    Invasion Day also heralded a time in our history where groups of the underclass were rejected by their society and incarcerated in a hostile place that they didn't want to be in. History repeats.

  2. Each year around the 26th January a seemingly familiar set of debates take place across the community on what Australia Day represents including suggestions for other more suitable occasion in the caladar such as 1st January, Federation 1901. Invariably these discussions start to traverse topics such as ‘the Republic’, our national symbols (the flag, national anthem) and a proper, more robust expression of our multi-cultural society. But crucially, the most meaningful debates appear to centre on ‘who we might be’ as a moral community (ethical beings not-withstanding the ‘200 year plus’ history of the dispossession by non-indigenous of the indigenous people of this continent.
    Writing in the online journal “Stubborn Mule”, John Carmody a Sydney-based writer on medical and cultural history, in outlining a case against 26th January as the most appropriate date for the celebration of Australia Day and (for the purpose of this blog) refers to material that I believe supports an “Australian Bill of Rights”.
    He writes, it was not until 7 February that the Colony of New South Wales officially began. This was when the Judge-Advocate, David Collins, publicly read to an improvised official ceremony, the commission to Governor Arthur Phillip which George III had issued on 25 April 1787. The passage referring the treatment of native Australians is somewhat remarkable in view of the events in the years that followed.
    ”You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all of our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence”.
    Obviously, there is no thought by the writers of the ‘Arthur Phillips Commission’ of investigating or (much less) adhering to the laws and customs of the Eora or Carigal people of the Sydney region. A premise of land occupation appears inherently in the wording the commission and to a modern eye the language is of co-existing separate cultures, and is morally condescending.
    However it could be useful to reflect on what our recent history might have been had this commission received the social and legal traditions of enforcement that was it’s intention, in contrast to the frontier wars of killing and dispossession evidenced widely, including from Henry Reynolds 1994 work “The Other Side of Frontier”. In is worth noting that in the immediate years following 1788 the Cardigal people were decimated, by ‘bounty’ killings and by smallpox.
    A reading of this section of the ‘commission’ could imply the intention of equal rights before the law for indigenous and non indigenous persons and that these rights and freedoms are the universal inherit rights of all people. As historically the document is situated firmly within ‘Enlightenment’ traditions of that time, (which to a large extent underpin the values of our democracy), could it not be argued that the pre-conditions for a bill of rights for our nation in the present day, are here articulated at the outset of the first sustained contact between indigenous Australians and Europeans?
    Of course, the intentions of the Arthur Phillip’s Commission look naive and failed miserably. But does that mean they must necessarily fail forever? When does a Bill of Rights by at least some interpretation not look naive? When reflecting on the sobering power imbalances in our community (for people with disability alongside continuing indigenous Australian disadvantage) wouldn’t a fresh approach be called for, that first informs our inherit rights and dignity as human beings?
    And yes, if Australia Day is to mean much more than ‘arrival and occupation’, the 26th January is not the day we should be celebrating.