Mention the words ‘Australia Day’ in 2023 and it can be a BBQ stopper! Even cricketers are saying they feel uneasy about the date. Perhaps the inescapable truth is that it simply represents the day on which English people claimed this land.
That said, someone once described Australia to me as a land with Aboriginal footprints all over it. The mountains, rivers, the hills and valleys have all been traversed by them; by tribes, the families and individuals. Every nook and cranny of this land has been known and loved by Aboriginal people. The First Nations song lines stretch the length and breadth of the continent and even the stars in the sky have a name, and the clusters tell a story.
The past is gone, but a reckoning is coming
However there’s no going back to an idealised past now. That unique past disappeared rapidly from 26 January 1788. Australia is now a multicultural nation, albeit one that has never come to terms openly and honestly with its recent history.
But as sure as the nose on your face, that reckoning is coming. Indeed, Australia Day 2023 raises questions about fairness.
Fifty years ago I had an Aboriginal mate, Cliff. He was one of the stolen generation. He never knew his parents. Life had been hard for Cliff and he ended up alcoholic – homeless on the streets. Nonetheless, Cliff was one of the most loving people I have ever met. We would often sit together, sometimes in my office, but sometimes in the gutter on the street. We would talk about this country and everything in it. What struck me was his forgiveness.
Love is the answer
I have often noticed people who have suffered great wrongs realise returning hate is not the answer. It gets you nowhere and eats you up inside. They realise the answer is loving kindness. They realise they don’t have to stoop to the lowness of their oppressor.
Cliff taught me a lot about the power of love, particularly when my marriage busted up. I was sitting, gutted on my doorstep. Not knowing what to do or say. The word bereft doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings at that time. Then looming out of the darkness came Cliff.
“Ahhh mate,” he said “I heard what’s happened and it’s terrible.” As he was speaking, he moved to sit beside.me. “I’ll sit with you for as long as it takes.”
Even now that simple, loving gesture fills me with tears. I can never repay him for the enormous amount of time and effort he took sitting with me; just so I wouldn’t be alone in my emptiness.
I have seen that same loving kindness over and over again in Aboriginal people. Many of my favourite memories are of sitting around a burning fire at The Block in Redfern.
There, stories would be told of authorities grabbing children from screaming mothers, and tears would be shed. But in amongst them were other stories, happier ones that would also be told.
And in those times we would sit and stare at the flames and love one another. What more could you want than that?
Cliff died while I was in Theological College, and his body was scooped up and buried in an unmarked grave outside the city limits. I will never be able to find it, but he lives on in my heart. Every day I think of him in gratitude.
So what to make of Australia Day 2023?
This Australia Day I’m thinking about so many of my experiences with Aboriginal people. Indeed, Rachel Perkins’ brilliant documentary “The Australia Wars” seems just the beginning of a truth telling and ultimate reconciliation which must surely come.
On Australia Day I will be pondering the good and the bad which is Australia – and yes there is bad, despite the jingoistic refusal to admit it. Maybe it will become known as Sorry Day or maybe it won’t. Maybe Australia Day will change to another day or maybe it won’t.
But as Cliffy used to say, “I’m a lover, not a fighter”. Whatever happens, I know that love will win.