By JULIUS DENNIS
Across Australia, January 26th has come to mean different things to different people, and this was reflected in the two strikingly different events that occurred in Alice Springs this morning.
Kicking off at 7:20 am was the official Australia Day Civic Event, held by the Town Council, complete with a robed Mayor, a bell-ringing town crier and 43 new Australian citizens.
Roughly three hours later, an Invasion Day rally was held on the courthouse lawns, sandwiched between the police station and the Local Court, with the shining glass behemoth of the Supreme Court watching over proceedings.
The only thing that bound events were two types of smoke: that of ceremony and that of sausages.
At the early event, the theme of ‘Australian values’ was ever present.
Mayor Damien Ryan spoke of the new citizens’ “commitment to being a part of Australia’s future” as well as the “common bind” of citizenship between all Australians, no matter race or origin.
Outgoing Lingiari MP Warren Snowdon spoke on behalf of Alex Hawke, the Minister for Citizenship, among other things.
The speech was the usual tale of freedom and resilience — the Australian way.
“Our social cohesion, a big aspect of Australia, has never been more important,” said Mr Hawke via Mr Snowdon, referring to what citizenship represents in pandemic times.
During the Welcome to Country, conducted by Marilyn Cavanagh, cohesion was also touched on.
Ms Cavanagh welcomed the citizens, new and established, to Arrernte Country, “the place of giant Creation beings that shaped and formed the landscape.”
“Utnenge (Arrernte for spirit), remember that dearly,” Ms Cavanagh urged the new Australians.
“It’s right here,” she said, tapping her sternum.
“If everyone is to become a part of this place spiritually … that’s where you will connect with the Country.”
“We’re not different. We’re the same, we all hold water.”
While onstage, Ms Cavanagh brought up the urgent need for Australian history to be correctly remembered and taught.
“We need to walk together, acknowledging the Frontier Wars.
“It’s not something that is not learnt about in our schools.”
“We have to acknowledge together to walk together,” she said, before thanking the Town Council for “being mature” about the topic’s inclusion in the event.
Following a call and response performance of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” from town crier Meredith Campbell, the new citizens made their way up one by one to have their photo taken with the Mayor and receive their official citizenship gift bag from Mr Snowdon.
Then came the Centralian Citizenship Awards – see details below.
If the teaching an honest Australian history in schools, including its violent events, was a brief mention at the Town Council event, it was a through-line of the Invasion Day rally held a few hours later.
The term Invasion Day of course refers to the landing of the British on Australian shores, and their claim of the country based on the assumption of Terra Nullius — nobody’s land.
As the event began, people were asked to contribute to a timeline of recognised and unrecognised history, writing on a metres-long sheet of paper. On one side of the timeline, the invaders’ narrative, on the other, a history that has been put in the shadows.
From the first outbreak of disease in the NSW colony, all the way up to the shambles that has been the response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a list of ways First Nations Australians have been dispossessed was compiled.
As people flowed into the park, it was clear that the crowd was going to be bigger, younger and ‘hipper’ than the Civic Event. The uniform it seemed, was Clothing the Gap, Greens merch, Spinifex Skate apparel or bright button down shirts.
A smoking ceremony (much larger than the one offered by Ms Cavanagh at the council event) was conducted.
The crowd formed a line and walked through the wandering turret of blue smoke. Towards the end of the procession, the smoke faltered to flame.
Organiser of the event Patricia Ansell, took the crowd briefly through some galling points of history in Mparntwe Alice Springs and the Arrernte country that surrounds it.
“This whole region was set up for cattle station owners to take over our land. And for cattle to damage our land.
“Our people became the slave labour.”
From there, Ms Ansell spoke of the effects of the Stolen Generation, the Freedom Rides, the formation of Lhere Artepe (the Native Title holders’ body corporate), the Northern Territory Intervention of 2007, the enduring problem of Aboriginal incarceration rates and deaths in custody, and the reluctance of governments to enshrine more than a “token” of Aboriginal existence in the constitution.
“No matter what they put up, they push it aside,” she said of the Australian Government’s treatment of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
As the morning wore on, a range of impressive, mostly elderly voices were heard. Their subjects varied, but common themes were about people coming together to overcome health and social problems, to have better education, especially two way and bilingual learning, to reject fracking, to resist oppressive and sometimes brutal policing, and to assert Aboriginal sovereignty.
Jodi Kopp spoke to the feeling about January 26 that rallies such as this one were pushing across the country: “Today is a day of mourning and sadness for our people for the injustices we have endured and still endure today.”
Ms Kopp said that changing the date of Australia Day from January 26 would be “a step towards reconciliation,” but to fully make the changes Australia must as a nation, the true stories of the Frontier Wars need to be “put in our curriculums, so [students] can learn the truth.
“Ignorance may be bliss for some, but it’s no longer an excuse.
“Best believe Australia, that a change is coming.”
If that change was felt at all amongst the Australian flag wavers of the earlier event, it was not evident in the “Aussie, Aussie. Oi, Oi, Oi” chant nor the Town Band’s odd performance of “Happy Birthday”.
Perhaps the disparity in what January 26th means to Centralians can best be overcome by what Nathan Yurandaali proposed. He was a visitor from Gamilaraay Country in NSW who spoke at the Invasion Day rally particularly about the dangers of fracking, but his words are fit for the larger purpose.
“It’s time for a big talk.”
CENTRALIANS OF THE YEAR
Four men have taken home Centralian of the Year honours.
Two women, the organisers of Stress Less in the park, were also recognised for their community efforts, taking home the plate for “Centralian Event of the Year.”
“Australia Day is an opportunity to recognise our local heroes. The Centralian Awards recognise remarkable individuals and the outstanding contributions they’ve made to our community over the past year,” said Mayor Damien Ryan at the awards ceremony.
Bruce Simmons, who was unable to receive his award in person, was the Centralian Citizen of the year.
Mr Simmons has been the Convenor of the Alice Springs Community Garden since 2011 and was described by the council as a “truly altruistic person whose heart is always focussed on what is good for the community.”
Mr Simmons was also recognised for his role in establishing the local Red Cross garden, and “as Chief Compost Turner”. During a recent working bee he helped recycle removed buffel grass by mixing it with manure for the Community Garden.
Mathew Mckinlay was recognised as the Centralian Volunteer of the Year, “for his work as a Foster Carer, and a Volunteer for Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), holding the position of Chair of the Alice Springs Board for the previous two years, as well as working for Alice Springs Police as the Southern Youth Diversion Officer.”
Mr Mckinlay is also at the forefront of veterans affairs in the Centre and obtained grant funding for a veterans and families equine therapy program here in Alice.
The Centralian Senior Citizen of the Year was former Alice Springs Deputy Mayor, Geoff Miers.
Mr Miers who is known around town for his horticultural prowess, and his involvement with National Tree day proceedings, was recognised for he active role in the RSCPA (when it was operating) and has been President of the East Side Residents Group, as well as a member. The group was very active during the ’80s and ’90s, ensuring the development of parks in Gosse Street and Lindsay Avenue.
(Mr Miers writes a weekly gardening column in these pages.)
Stress Less in the Park, winning in the Event of the Year category, is an annual part of Mental Health Week activities in Alice Springs, and this year focused on “building mentally healthy communities.” The 2020 event featured local musicians and entertainers as well as stalls from an array of local service providers.
Declan Miller, the 2021 Centralian Young Citizen of the Year, a recent year 12 graduate, was recognised as a leader of his peers and his participation in a wide range of community and leadership activities, including his participation in the Graham (Polly) Farmer Follow Your Dreams Program.
Mr Miller is also an up-and-coming graphic novelist, with his first book, Mixed Feelings, which he worked on for four years, published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and Gestalt Publishing.
Among many other achievements, Mr Miller developed his “Comics in Crisis!” website with YouTube tutorials to guide others in making their own comics during the coronavirus pandemic – “an extraordinary and creative response to the global health crisis.”