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Australia Day: liberating the conversation

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Mark Yettica-Paulson is an Indigenous leader from the South East Queensland and North East NSW regions and is the Workplace Relationships Manager for Australians Together. Mark is passionate about faith, justice and building a better Australia for all of us, especially First Nations Peoples. Recently TEAR had the opportunity to catch up with Mark on the subject of January 26 and how as a nation we can move forward. Here’s some of what he had to say:


When churches and faith groups look at the question of what to do about January 26, it’s really easy to get caught up in arguments to either change the date or save the date of Australia Day.

For the socially minded, there’s a leaning towards changing the date and it ignites a righteousness around the justice position. Many of us know that, while there’s lots to celebrate about this country, for many Indigenous people January 26 is a difficult day.

There are also those on the opposite side, whose theology of land (even though they may not articulate it) is one that says, ‘God gave us the opportunity to work the land, to subdue the land, and the Aboriginal people weren’t doing that and we’re here now and we’re doing that, and it‘s been more than 200 years and why can’t we just focus on being together? Let’s focus on peacebuilding’.

The problem is we can become closed-minded to what’s motivating people with a different point of view and it’s become difficult for the two sides of the debate to have a dialogue together.

When we look at any social movement, one thing we realise is that the enemy isn’t always the other side, the enemy is apathy.

When we look at any social movement, one thing we realise is that the enemy isn’t always the other side, the enemy is apathy. People will say, ‘I don’t want to talk about refugees, I don’t want to think about the implications of how I shop, I’m not interested in homelessness’. It’s that apathy that leads people to say, ‘your justice issue doesn’t impact me’. That’s the silent majority that we need to engage with.

For us to make progress on the issues surrounding January 26, we need to engage with this apathy and engage with the other side.

The challenge is twofold; firstly, how do we overcome our polarised positions to have a conversation with those on both sides? And secondly, how can we inspire an awakening to the justice issues experienced by First Nations Peoples?

My particular focus has been on how we engage with Australians who need to become aware, for the first time, of why January 26 is a painful day for many Indigenous people. We need to make it simple for people to stop and give it a second thought. To do that, we have to present a clear message with a light touch, even though, at first, it may not reflect the seriousness, depth and complexity of the conversation. That’s a real challenge.

The tough reality is that millions of Australians will only give it a second thought. The craft for us, in these justice movements, is to hold the depth and severity of the issue, whilst reaching out to that tipping point of Australians who don’t understand why it’s a big deal.

We want people from that tipping point, to understand the depths of the issues. It’s really hard for us, as Indigenous people, to acknowledge and live with the tension that non-Indigenous people are never going to understand or feel it as deeply as we are. So, the tipping point might just be glimpsing a little thing, gaining a little understanding.

Australians need to understand that January 26, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, is a hurtful day for many First Nations People. I’d like to see Australians start to think about this day differently. But it’s not about getting caught up in the #changethedate versus #savethedate debate. As long as we’re locked in a debate, the conversation is binary, people on both sides won’t engage with each other and we’ll never make progress.

We need to own the hard parts of our history and still recognise, acknowledge and celebrate that this is a fantastic country.

So, how do we move forward?

Firstly, all Australians need to consider what this date means for Indigenous people and what can be done differently to the current practice of Australia Day celebrations. Then, when we begin to understand the whole story behind January 26 and its impact today, we can finally discuss how to move forward as a nation.

My personal opinion is it’s a mistake to say to our fellow Australians that we want to remove a public holiday that signals the end of the summer holidays and kids going back to school. That is, to remove the January 26 long weekend or public holiday would be a mistake. But we do need to own the hard parts of our history and still recognise, acknowledge and celebrate that this is a fantastic country.

There are many reasons why Australia is a fabulous and awesome country, so how do we celebrate that, without digging the knife into Aboriginal people? How do we celebrate without saying, ‘we never recognised you when we founded this country, and we’re not going to recognise you now. January 26, although really painful for you, is a date for us to throw our party and celebrate how awesome we are’? That just builds the divide even further.

On this day, history and identity and justice smash together. It’s about our history, but it's also about our identity. We, as a country, have a tough reality to come to grips with. If we don’t grapple with January 26, we could find ourselves in a situation where we are more divided, because our fear of the other defines our rhetoric.

Mark Yettica-Paulson
Mark Yettica-Paulson.

My message to churches and faith groups would be one of hope. In this national dialogue, we have a role to play in speaking love, forgiveness and the ability to overcome. The church can be an example to fellow Australians by recognising the difficult parts of its own church history, where some Christian churches didn’t do the right thing, but some did. But we can actually hold on to that history and continue to be in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can hold that. We can do that and it’s not because we are special humans, it’s because of the grace of God in us, the Spirit of God in us. It’s because of the Cross.

Pride and Pain timeline

Australians Together has created the Pride and Pain timeline to help you sort through the confusion about January 26 and find out the facts about the history of our country.

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Mark Yettica-Paulson is an Indigenous leader from the South East Queensland and North East NSW regions and is the Workplace Relationships Manager for Australians Together.