Michael Pezzullo: settlement of the nation and where to now

Australia will always be a “settler nation”. But the new world order requires increasing engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, the Immigration and Border Protection Department secretary believes.

On Australia Day, we rightly celebrate what it means to be an Australian — to live as freely and prosperously, and as safely and securely, as any one possibly can on this planet. We will celebrate these truths at the various festivities of Australia Day, which is marked by community and family events, official community awards ceremonies, such as the naming of the Australian of the Year, citizenship ceremonies welcoming new citizens into the Australian community, and of course a public holiday spent with loved ones and friends, with joy and merriment in the Australian summer.

Of course, it is also the day that we formally commemorate the founding of a British colony in Sydney in 1788. As we rightfully enjoy Australia Day and its festivities, I would contend that it is worth pondering the significance of the events of 1788 in the broader context of the Australian national story. That story is one fundamentally of settlement, from its distant indigenous origins, then by way of the British foundations of our modern nation which were laid on this day in 1788, and then again by way of wave after wave of migrant arrivals thereafter.

The oldest, continuing civilisation, which is that of Australia’s indigenous peoples, settled here so long ago that we do not really know when or how they came to inhabit the land. But inhabit it they did, even if we thought for more than two centuries that the land had been devoid of organised human presence prior to European settlement, or terra nullius. Then on January 26, 1788, in the name of His Majesty, King George III, a captain of the Royal Navy took possession of the land which was to be known as New South Wales. Today, the British foundations of our political, social and cultural order, are not often discussed or recognised. Some indeed argue that we should observe another day as our national day — either because of the act of dispossession and dislocation that occurred when the British claimed the land through (some contend) an act of conquest; or because we have outgrown our origins as a British colony, and celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet is somehow embarrassing or quirky. “We should always re-evaluate our history and look back on events and trends in the light of contemporary norms and learnings.”

But how can we “outgrow our origins”, much less forget them? We should always re-evaluate our history and look back on events and trends in the light of contemporary norms and learnings. Indeed, we are doing precisely that today through the discussion about the proper recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our constitution. Some suggest that until we do that, we are not a complete commonwealth, at least in constitutional terms. We can and should re-appraise the past and make good where that needs to be done. But we cannot forget or ignore the past. It lives in us today, and will do so tomorrow.

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