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Australia Day Address 1997 by Thomas Keneally

Thomas Keneally delivered the Australia Day Address in Sydney on 26 January 1997.


It is a massive honour for any citizen to be asked to speak publicly on this day. I can explain it only as arising from the fact that I spent part of my childhood in Homebush, the Olympic City, and the subtle members of the Australia Day committee became aware of that fact! I am not here to utter sentiments about the Constitution, although I am comforted to see that even as solid a citizen as Tim Fischer now agrees the Republic can be achieved without causing the milk in the jugs on Australian breakfast tables to turn to blood. But none of that is the order of today's business. The first agenda item is to give brotherly greetings to all fellow citizens of the Commonwealth.

No-one denies that January 26th, 1788 is a resonant anniversary for everyone who now draws breath on this continent. Eight human generations or so ago, on this morning, a startling transformation overtook Australia. The European entered this dazzling and - by Old World standards - strange scene. There was in what is now the Rocks not an exercise of authority, as is generally imagined. There was only a very human celebration of safe arrival - amongst the cabbage tree palms and eucalypts and melaleucas of Sydney Cove, three toasts were drunk, and a few shots fired by the Marines. Hence January 26th was a humbler day than generally depicted, more akin to American Thanksgiving - as one observer said, that day the new community was tentatively "christened".

It was not until February 8th that the Europeans exercised the idea of sovereignty. On the morning of February 8th, Australia, then not even named Australia, and not yet continentally defined by the brilliant Flinders, lay in the possession of some 640 tribes. By afternoon, some million and a half square miles, as far west as 135 degrees of East Longitude, a line running roughly through the middle of the present Northern Territory and the State of South Australia, had been transformed into the lands of the Crown. Those Europeans who had on January 26th gratefully and humbly celebrated arrival, had thirteen days later massively assumed half a continent. The line was drawn at 135 degrees East Longitude to avoid offending other possible claimants, such as the Dutch. It is almost needless to say the impact of that and subsequent claims on present Australia are still being argued, not only in the High Court but in every Australian household. And maybe it is hair- splitting to distinguish January 26th from February 8th, but perhaps the distinction can be useful to set the tone for this day, to exalt gratitude and hope over the furious acquisitiveness which is both our favourite sport and' the less attractive side of our natures.

So let us look at two ideas in combination. For the Sydney tribes, after the great good fortune of possession since the Ice Age, the golden time was at an end. Bennelong, a captured native youth from the Manly area, whom Phillip would ultimately take to England and introduce to George Ill, lost his earth and his soul. But for a couple like the teenage criminals from Norwich, Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes, good fortune was at its beginning. Amongst the first Europeans married in Sydney, they might stand as our archetypal European Adam and Eve. They were adolescent criminals created by conditions similar to those of our own era. New technologies had deprived millions of normal employment. Exactly as now, rural work employed fewer and fewer people. The displaced took their anger to the cities, where crimes against person and property were rampant.

Frightened property-holders called for truth in sentencing, and the great commentator on the law, Blackstone, pointed out twenty years before the first Australia Day that there were 160 statutory hanging offences. Henry Kable, according to family legend, too young to hang, encountered the great bounty and space and strangeness of Australia. He and the long- living Susannah begat a substantial Australian clan, two of whom grew up to captain ships owned by their father. The Kables were entrepreneurs, farmers, brewers, and merchants.

The detritus of Britain, they had achieved what we find it so hard to give youth criminals now - they had achieved redemption.

When I was a child in the western suburbs of Sydney, I beheld on those highly glamorous Western Line trains, members of an increasing group of newly arrived people who looked somewhat pale and somewhat hunted. Their clothing was odd, a mixture of cast-offs, and of garments of a cut we saw only in World War II newsreels. The impolite - that is, most of us called them "reffos". The correct term was Displaced Persons. Australia is the continent of the displaced person. Even the younger sons of the genteel, the novelist Charles Dickens' son, Alfred Tennyson Dickens, for example, came here as a displaced person, a reject from the British Navy (1 864); and the novelist Anthony Trollope's son, Frederic (1 865), was in his way displaced too. In fact cynics might say Fred Trollope was built to be an Australian - "he was good at cricket and football, and had no academic ambition ... Fred was determined to emigrate to Australia and be a sheep farmer." Our ancestors, driven by vision, hunger, joblessness, lack of land, race persecution, fear of alien law, mineral desire, tyranny, squalor or horror in the streets, were all displaced persons. We accept and even rejoice in that concept.

But when we try to look at black Australians as internally displaced persons, there is a futile attempt by some to talk us out of it. It is remarkable how we are tormented at dinner tables, in cabs, in parliaments, everywhere, by this question of what box to tick, of what weight we should put on either aspect of Australia's settlement. It is a question which does not give us rest. We see contrasting events - the founding European acts, the claim of sovereignty and the founding marriage of the Kables, and on the other hand the tragedy of the Sydney natives and ultimately other tribes. And we are told by some that we need to choose between these events, tick either one box or the other. Some would tell us that if we look upon this day as Signifying a tragedy for native Australians, we are indulging a "black armband', view of history, we are provoking guilt, and we are encouraging shame at the undeniable achievements of our European ancestors. I shall indicate later why as an' individual Australian, I demand the right to tick all boxes, to celebrate, to praise, to take delight, to have doubt and to mourn.

The idea that we must choose between white triumphalism on the one hand and an appropriate grieving on the other is an absurd concept. Is it not true that most citizens are quite aware, from their life experience, that a seamless advance to glory and the sun is uncharacteristic of the life of an individual or any community? A majority of Australians can see why today cannot be a day of rejoicing for all, and that therefore there may be grounds for our ultimately finding an Australia Day, a celebration of our community, with which we can all identify. But certainly for now, and since I was a child, Australia Day is January 26th, and I have seen it become more celebratory, and more reflective too. If it were not reflective, I would not be on this rostrum, doing my best to reflect.

In the spirit of celebration, what I, as a white Australian, find it easy to rejoice in today is that somehow a penal colony was transformed over a relatively short time into a progressive society. Apart from the Kables, I find it impossible not to take a perverse delight in my wife's great grandfather. He was transported for what some historians have called "protest crime", that is, rural activism.. It might as well be admitted that with other young men he broke down a landlord's door in East Galway, an act either of brave protest or of malice towards property, according to your point of view, but motivated by democratic impulses, not by desire for cheap gain. In 1848 he married in Australia a five-foot-one-inch convict named Mary. Displaced persons, both of them. On Mary's underjaw the surgeon of her convict transport noticed the marks of lymph gland tuberculosis, contracted and defeated in childhood. That handsome, small woman gave birth to a family of Australians. One of them lived triumphantly into his 90s and did not die until 1949. All of them made a contribution to Australian bush life, farming, blacksmithing, mail contracting in Gundaroo, Broken Hill, Wilcannia, and never - not one of them - in trouble with the law.

Perhaps because I am writing an endless non-fiction book on the subject, I celebrate the fact that we were the recipients of political prisoners from Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales and Canada. Many of them left their democratic mark on our politics. One was Thomas Francis Meagher, later a renowned orator, a Union General in the American Civil War, and Governor of Montana. As a ticket-of-leave man in Van Diemen's Land he wrote the election material for the English gentleman who stood for the seat of Avoca in the Tasmanian Legislative Council elections in 1850. This election saw all the progressives, who wished to abolish transportation against the wishes of the British Homer Office, elected to council, a success which acted as a prelude to Home Rule for Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria.

I celebrate the fact that in Victoria, following the Eureka Stockade, various Chartist propositions, considered blasphemous in Britain - the secret ballot, universal male suffrage, payment of Members of Parliament - were introduced, and soon spread to other States.

Such was the reforming spirit of progressives from the British Isles and elsewhere, who brought their inherited principles with them, and were able to do more with them here than anywhere else!

I celebrate the determination with which Caroline Chisholm peopled the bush with young women. I celebrate the impulses of progress which lay behind the free public libraries, the founding of State and ultimately Federal libraries. For libraries have since antiquity been the measure of civilization, and those who would cramp them, cramp civilization itself. It is remarkable how much better this was understood in 1850 than it may be now,. I celebrate the yearning of ordinary settlers and artisans which lay behind the Schools of Arts, and the Mechanics' Institutes which appeared throughout Australia, and the demand of our forefathers and mothers for free and decent education and humane working conditions celebrate the fact of Federation. Whatever constitutional difficulties might have existed, however much anti-Federationist bystanders like Sir George Reid and Sir William Lyne predicted disaster and death to institutions as we knew them, the citizens of this continent found the means to federate. I celebrate the extension of the franchise to women early in the history of our Commonwealth, and before that in South Australia and elsewhere. I celebrate the devotion, the vigour, the innocence, the courage, the legend-making which marked from our participation in two World Wars. There is no denying that in Australian mythology these conflicts stand in direct line of descent from certain other Australian historic events subsumed into male myth - Adam Lindsay Gordon jumping his horse across that fence on the cliff above the sea at Brighton, Les Darcy, Cazaly, the Don. Ned Kelly, "Tell'em I died game," and "Such is life!" And behind the names on War Memorials, I remember the close and intimate pain of mothers. In Auburn, New South Wales, 1944, my aunt's neighbour gets a telegram saying that her son, eighteen years old, is dead in New Guinea, shot in the throat. He died instantly, said all the letters, as all the letters in those days did say. So he joined the tragic and brave fabric. I particularly honour the solidarity of Australian women on the home front, which for more than two years I witnessed as a child while my father was absent. These were women who lacked cars, telephones, refrigerators.

Calls to relatives, calls to government offices, including the Department of Defence, and inquiries about soldiers' pay, were made in our block at tuppence a time from a phone on the corner of Loftus Crescent and Knight Street, Homebush, and women returning from that box with bad news of any kind sought out the network of their peers.

I celebrate those gestures of institutional compassion which Australia was amongst the first to offer, the aged pension, and the genius for resolution of disputes which has traditionally been inherent in the arbitration and conciliation system. I celebrate the Commonwealth Scholarships which for my generation of Australians brought the chance of university education to thousands who might not otherwise have considered it a possibility. I celebrate the remembrance of remarkable Prime Ministers - Curtin, who acknowledged our distance from Europe, that decent engine driver, Chifley, and the much debated Menzies who put his stamp upon a long era of our history. I celebrate the instinctive and fraternal generosity behind such organisations as the Smith Family, the Red Cross, Community Aid Abroad, the Hollows Foundation. I celebrate the wonder which other writers, and painters and film makers and musicians have brought to Australian life, heroes too numerous to name, but to name a few at random: Margaret Preston, Fred Williams, Charles Blackman, Gwen Harwood, Gillian Armstrong, John Williams, Judith Wright, Tim Winton, Baz Luhrmann, and on and on, a list of cultural magnificence of the kind which was beyond imagining in the Australia Days of my childhood. I am delighted to be able to share Australia with such eloquent, progressive, genial, passionate and truth-telling Aboriginal voices as those of Lois O'Donoghue, Noel Pearson, Pat Dodson. I applaud Cathy Freeman, who, with only two- thirds of the stride Perec possessed, actually ran more strides at better pace than the Frenchwoman, and so won the Gold Medal as far as I am concerned. I would like to thank the brilliant five-eighth Cliffy Lyons for helping give Manly Warringah its first premiership since 1987.

On such a day too, I am left to wonder at the altruism of the nurse who returned to the restaurant under fire at Port Arthur, with no guarantee of emerging again, to tend the wounded within. I am delighted that Australian Naval and Air Force personnel should go so deeply and willingly into a remote corner of the Southern Ocean to find and retrieve those who, though they may be engaged in a huge recreational folly, nonetheless show up as imperilled humans on our moral radar screens.

Having said all this, am I not to deplore the fact that we have virtually accepted that many trapped under the hull of our economy cannot be retrieved? It is to wear a black armband to ask why a fourteen-year-old runaway in St Kilda or the Cross is not as likely to be saved? And am I required, in this dazzling Australian landscape, to look at the view merely, and not also, as one of Professor Henry Reynolds' history lecturers once recommended Henry should do, "hear the Aborigines crying in the wind?"

To ask this latter question is depicted now as being late twentieth century, trendy, citified. But these were questions raised from the beginning of settlement, in places as high as the Colonial Office. Governor Glenelg reflected in 18'35 that the proposed South Australian colony "would extend very far into the interior of New Holland, and might embrace in its range numerous tribes of People whose Proprietary Title to the Soil we have not the slightest grounds for disputing." As far as I know, Governor Glenelg was not a North Adelaide, South Yarra, or Paddington cappuccino or chardonnay sipper, nor a black armband wearer.

Are we not required by imagination, by our own passion for property, exhibited by our endless enthusiastic chattering about real estate, to take a creative attitude to what the High Court has found in these matters. Under the Common Law, one of the sources of the rights we do have in the absence of a Bill of Rights, native title exists, and as a result of the findings in the Wik case, it can co-exist with pastoral leases. When other judgements come down from the High Court, the parties to the dispute live by the decision, and in the best situations, come to the negotiation table, strike a balance, and end up liking each other. We all feel sympathy both for the Aboriginals who brought the Wik case and for the pastoral lease holders, who have lived hard and remote lives satisfying uncertain markets. It is sad to think though that for some Australians, when the High Court makes its judgement on Aboriginal title, the result is not an impulse to negotiation, but rather exorbitant statements, designed to alarm and mislead the urban and rural householder, concerning how much land is vulnerable.

We have a debate on Aboriginal expenditure too. Fair enough in itself. The standard of health and mortality in the Aboriginal community is disastrous, the treatment of Aboriginal prisoners attracts unflattering appraisal from Amnesty International, a body whose attention is generally taken by gross misuse of humans in places like the Sudan or China. So a public debate on the health and welfare of Aboriginal peoples is valid, just as a debate on immigration is valid. But that recurrent sentence, "The Aboriginals are given too much!: wrongfoots the Aboriginal community, and invalidates the Aboriginal voice. Mike Lynsky, the Director of the Hollows Foundation which is trying to set up an eye clinic in Far North Queensland, recently told me of a case which casts a little light on the "given too much" hysteria. An Aboriginal woman was flown from Far North Queensland to Townsville with a serious eye disease. The condition was diagnosed, but no bed existed for her, so she was flown back home again to await the time when her operation could be performed. When it was time for her operation, the woman was again flown out of her community, operated upon, and then ultimately returned home. The expenditure on her health is marked down as Aboriginal health expenditure, but as a number of Aboriginal leaders have recently been asking on this issue, where has the money gone? In this instance it has gone to white airlines and to white health services. The woman has certainly and properly benefited greatly. But is the expenditure in the strictest sense what people think of when they talk of Aboriginal expenditure? Let us count such questions as these into the debate.

Then we have a debate on immigration. Many Australians feel disinherited in Australia, and they are angry. There are diverse reasons. Technology is again one of them. Then, trade blocs have formed in Europe and the Americas, and we are not part of them. People behold a succession of ministers, Labor and Liberal, talk about how wonderful the monthly or quarterly figures are - there have been after all, 25 successive quarters of growth. But many Australians see none of the benefit of those figures coming their way. Now the problem, some would tell us, is really that the system is swamped and misused by immigrants. We are, to quote the Member for Oxley, "swamped by Asians." That word "swamped" is in Hansard, and is all the Member for Oxley's work. It has not been invented by a supposedly evil, misrepresenting media. "The Economist" of last December 14th wrote, "At present (from all sources) "was just 80,000. These numbers make visions of an Australia 'swamped' by Asians seem silly." Many of that less than 5% brilliant Jenny Kee, for example, Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney Henry Tsang with his weakness for green and gold jackets, Richard Quee Chee, Sheffield Shield cricketer, Dr David Yu of the Childrens' Hospital, former Australian of the Year - could not be more Australian if they wore corks on their hats.

Does not this hysteria remind us of Ulster and the Balkans? Ethnic stereotyping is a habit we have inherited from the Old World. It is one which we have sought to overcome here, one we should be too proud - as Australians whose touchstone is tolerance - to indulge in with any seriousness. To give our mistrusting, our unemployed, our fearful, a racial target is not to give them bread but to give them a stone. Perhaps the admirable teachers of every school in Australia could point out to their students how consistently race has been raised as the source of human misfortune, and how consistently it has proved not to be the cause at all. A great European like Martin Luther wrote in the 17th century of the Jews: "They are thirsty bloodhounds and murders of all ?Christendom, with full intent, now for more than fourteen hundred years, and indeed they were often burned to death upon the accusation that they had poisoned water in wells, stolen children, and tom and hacked them apart, in order to cool their temper secretly with Christian blood." If a great European like Martin Luther can be so wrong in playing the race card, God help the rest of us, including the Member for Oxley!

Many commentators have urged us to be fairly sporting about the racial stereotyping which some Australians are now engaging in. It has been depicted as one of the virtues of freedom of speech and as a very Australian impulse. Australians felt that their true feelings were being suppressed by name-callers who flung around the word "racist" too easily, and perhaps there is some truth to that assertion. It is undeniable too that sometimes Australians use what would appear to outsiders to be ethnic insults as a form of affection.

Many commentators queue up to tell us too that really a number of Asian cultures, including that of Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan, are racist too, so that makes it all fine and moderate. Some brave souls have mentioned similarities to Nazi race hate in the present degree of race hysteria, but we are told that this is excessive, that Australian race obsession began on the same provender as the present movement - on economic ruin for many, on lack of employment, and with people who felt estranged and disinherited in their own community. We citizens owe it to ourselves to greet scapegoating not with whoops of delight, as if our freedoms had been restored to us, but with the greatest suspicion, based on the ruin which scapegoating has brought other and less happy nations.

So, some questions for the debate on immigration! Imagine that we closed the gate now and ruled the line off at our 18-millions, as both many environmentalists and some conservatives tell us to do. Are we sure Australia would be thereby improved? Would the jobless have jobs? Would the bewildered feel less lost? Would Australia suddenly be enriched? Many environmentalists, including Tim Flannery in "The Future Eaters" have no doubt about it, and argue that our land mass cannot sustain even those who now inhabit it. Though geopolitics - not to mention an unwillingness by some of us to volunteer to leave - may make such a proposition of holding population at a fixed level utterly untenable, his argument should be part of the debate.

But the more common reaction to immigration is not environmental but rather that the Australia we know is under threat. Perhaps Australians should get some reassurance from history on this. Australians have felt under threat a number of times. "The frequency with which the assertion, that Australia is in danger of being 'swamped' by hordes or millions of coloured aliens has evidently caused it to be regarded by some people as a strong argument..." Is this a commentator writing in 1996? No, it is George Foxall writing in 1903. "The (Race deleted for the moment) residents ... are generally of an undesirable type, and do not make good settlers. They live in the towns and carry on business in cafes, fish shops, boarding houses, and other less desirable ways." A comment on some ethnic suburb in 1996? No, Royal Commissioner Perry misreading Greek settlers in North Queensland in 1923.

If we were to have a real debate about immigration, we must also ask the question as to whether immigrants generate wealth instead of depriving us of it. In this regard, we might also look to precedents in other new world nations. In the America of the 1850s, the successful Know-Nothing Party argued, "We have got America where we want it, at 25-million, and now we want to close the gate, before the Poles, Greeks, Italians change us into something we do not want to be, and wear funny costumes, dance funny dances, eat funny food and never be the sort of Americans we are." Can you imagine the enclosed, stupefying society which would have resulted had the Know-Nothings succeeded? Can you imagine how we would have been stultified by the lack of post World War II migration?

In a true debate on immigration, questions of race do not belong on the table, and the verb "swamped" ensures it does lie, very nakedly, very threateningly, on the table. An Australian of Malaysian-Chinese descent whom I know raised her children as Australians and deliberately chose not to teach them Chinese. They are both now high school students in Sydney. She says that she does not want to pass on her insecurity to them. But she brings it home from the supermarket, where occasionally she is insulted by one of those who consider themselves a part of the Australian embattled garrison. She is a refugee from ethnic persecution - Malaysia's discrimination against Malay-Chinese. She had hoped in this spacious and generous country not to find hate again. She justly asks, as Senator Bill O'Chee also asked, "Where are my children to go, if not here?"

I look forward with the rest of you to a good Australian year, an Australia in which citizens make their just demands for a high standard of living. I look forward to an Australia where every worker and non-worker receives the information, and the leadership, on the basis of which to demand that suitable standard of living which has ever been the objective of Australians. I would like to thank the Australian community as an individual for making my life a genial one in this wonderful place, which, despite a number of offers to the contrary, I cannot stay away from.

It is the wonder which this continent has introduced into all our lives, it is the spaciousness and hope with which this society has endowed most of us, that I praise today, as Australians, raising their face to the sun above the barbecue, praise the same luckiness, and wouldn't be dead for quids. Happy Birthday, Australia.