Statue becomes lightning rod for Australian nationalists

Sydney, Australia CNN  — 

A monument to a British explorer that’s stood in Sydney’s Hyde Park for 138 years is at the center of a debate that’s becoming louder and more divisive about how the country remembers its past.

Just one week after a vandal scrawled the words “no pride in genocide” and “change the date” on the statue of Captain James Cook in late August, a far-right group marched through the park to condemn the act.

“I take the vandalism as a personal attack on me and Australia’s colonial heritage,” Party for Freedom Chairman Nick Folkes told CNN.

The Party for Freedom opposes immigration and multiculturalism and its website appropriates the campaign slogan of US President Trump’s to urge Australians to “Make Australia Great Again.”

On Tuesday, members of the party stormed a council meeting in Yarra, Melbourne, waving flags and shouting “shame” and “nationalism is healthy, nationalism is good.”

Yarra was targeted because it’s one of two councils which have voted not to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, January 26, out of respect for the Indigenous community.

Australia Day is celebrated with a national holiday on January 26 each year, typically with barbecues and Australian flags.

It marks the day when, in 1788, the Union Jack was hoisted at Sydney Cove to establish a British penal colony. However, since as early as 1938, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have opposed honoring a day they call Invasion Day or Survival Day.

Calls to change the date of Australia’s national holiday are not new, but the vandalism of Captain Cook’s statue has renewed the debate about the day and how the country remembers its colonial past.

Thousands of protesters marched through Melbourne on January 26, 2017, proclaiming the day "Invasion Day."

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull denounced the vandalism on a statement on his Facebook page that likened it to Stalinism. He said it was “part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it.”

Independent curator and historian Nicola Teffer disagrees.

“History is always under review,” she told CNN.

“The recent statue de-facings are a protest about who, and what, has been left out of our history, not an erasure of that history.”

Children display an Australian flag at Bathers Beach on Australia Day, 2017.

A controversial plaque

The current furor over Captain Cook’s statue is as much about the man as the plaque’s inscription.

It states the explorer “discovered this territory,” which prominent indigenous journalist Stan Grant described in a recent article as a “damaging myth.”

Captain Cook's statue in Hyde Park is etched with the words "discovered this country 1770."

“Today the idea of discovery, the doctrine of terra nullius – empty land – that underpinned the British claim on this land and extinguished the rights of indigenous people no longer stands,” he told CNN.

“It’s been repudiated by our high court. The law is not trapped in an era of racial discrimination, nor should history be.”

However the prime minister says the context of Captain Cook’s “discovery” was obvious to him “when as a schoolboy I first read the inscription.”

Conservative social and political commentator Andrew Bolt agrees, telling CNN: “(Captain Cook) discovered (Australia) in the way most adults reading the inscription would understand it: (he) discovered something unknown to the wider world, which in turn had not been discovered by Aborigines.” 

‘We are not the United States’

Grant said it was the recent tearing down of Confederate leader statues in the United States that prompted him to reflect on his own country’s monuments.

However, he isn’t calling for the statues or plaques to be removed. He welcomes “creative suggestions for new statues and plaques that would enlarge the idea of who we are as a nation.”

He also isn’t concerned that Australia is about to witness the deadly riots seen in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Let’s be clear – that act of vandalism was disgraceful and unacceptable. But we are not the United States. The issue of confederate statues and the legacy of the civil war is not specifically analogous to the Australian experience. We do however have our own history of racism that we confront in our own way.”

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His views about the statue are echoed by Professor Mick Dodson, a prominent indigenous rights activist and the Director of the National Center for Indigenous Studies at Australian National University.

“The word ‘discovery’ in the colonial sense is such a hugely arrogant use of the language,” he told CNN.

“You plant a flag on someone else’s country and somehow it becomes yours? But I don’t mind the plaque being there – it reminds us that the job of dealing with unfinished business hasn’t been done.”

A City of Sydney spokesperson told CNN that while concerns about the statues have been referred to the council’s Indigenous Advisory Panel, there are no plans to remove the monuments.

“In other cities such as Melbourne and Perth, additional plaques have been added to historical statues to give context to the original wording or to balance history,” the spokesperson said.

In other parts of Australia, there seems a growing willingness to revisit aspects of history that have become unpalatable. Last week the Queensland Government announced it will change the names of 10 locations with racially insensitive names.

Calls to ‘change the date’

The Australian government is steadfastly refusing to consider changing the date of Australia Day.

Earlier this month, the government stripped two local councils – Yarra and Darebin – of their powers to hold citizenship ceremonies after they voted not to hold them on January 26. There are murmurs that other councils want to hold their own votes.

Citizenship ceremonies are the final step in the process of becoming a naturalized Australian citizen – and typically see participants make a formal public pledge to uphold the values of Australia.

“I think it’s an over-reaction,” said Professor Dodson of the government.

“They are backing themselves into a corner because they’re not even prepared to have a debate about it. What is the government afraid of? Obviously the two councils concerned have had a discussion and have come to a conclusion.”

Yarra Council said it had commissioned an independent survey of 300 non-Indigenous people in the area which showed almost 79% supported a smaller, culturally-sensitive event.

“The overwhelming sentiment from our Aboriginal community is that January 26 is a date of sadness, trauma and distress. They have told us that this is not a day of celebration, but a day of mourning,” said Mayor Amanda Stone.

Darebin Mayor Kim Le Cerf said she was disappointed in the government’s decision to revoke its right to hold ceremonies but said the council would continue to support the “change the date” campaign.

“It’s ironic that the Prime Minister has said changing the date is a national debate we need to have, yet his Government appears to be working to silence it by punishing councils for taking a stand in support of their Indigenous communities,” Le Cerf said.

Bolt maintains the overall level of angst over Australia Day isn’t high.

“Most Australians are not getting worked up at all. Some activists are, claiming that January 26 is distressing in reminding them of the arrival of the First Fleet, which they claim was the start of an alleged genocide, rather than of Western civilization.” 

He cited a McNair yellowSquares poll conducted in January that found just 15% of the 1,156 respondents support changing the date.

“Most seem the kind of people who will not accept a democratic decision,” Bolt said.

However, the Australian Greens party, which unlike both major parties supports the #ChangeTheDate movement, believes momentum is building.

“As more and more people become aware of the distress the current date causes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the more people will support the concept of change,” said Senator Rachel Siewert, the party’s spokesperson on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

Debate for another time?

Advocates of changing the date have proposed a variety of alternatives and point out that the tradition of Australia Day isn’t a longstanding one. It wasn’t until 1935 that every Australian state and territory adopted the term “Australia Day.”

“January 26 was a proclamation of the penal colony of New South Wales, which doesn’t include half the country,” said Professor Dodson.

“Parts of the Northern Territory, parts of South Australia and all of Western Australia – where I come from – weren’t included in it. And anyway, there were people here for tens of thousands of years.”

Professor Dodson suggests the best way forward for Australia Day is to wipe the slate clean.

“I think we should wait until the day we choose to become a republic,” he said.