OPINION: Step outside yourself and ask – why shouldn’t we change the date of Australia Day?

Stock image.
Stock image.

GOOGLE the word ‘empathy’ – I’d tell you to look it up in a dictionary but, you know, 2019 and all that.

“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

It requires a little mental projection – putting yourself in the shoes of others to try and gauge how they might feel about something.

So how might you feel, were you a descendant of Australia’s first people, as January 26 – Australia Day – approaches?

The date marks the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip steering a fleet of British ships into Port Jackson, New South Wales, in 1788.

For Australia’s Indigenous population, it was the beginning of the end for their way of life.

As historian Robert Murray writes in his book The Making of Australia: “In only a few years, a drastically new way of life crashed into the oldest continuing culture on Earth.

“Over one generation the old indigenous (ways) disappeared, the Aboriginal population fell by about half and they became a minority in their own country.”

If the brutalities inflicted on Indigenous people in the 18th and 19th centuries were not bad enough, the 20th century brought the horror of the Stolen Generation.

Under programs endorsed by the state, children were forcibly taken from their homes for decades, creating a psychic wound that continues to fester.

And all of it stemming back to January 26, 1788.

Now the date has been reclaimed by bogans everywhere, to swill beer and watch the sky explode, differentiated only by their choice of FM radio station.

Can’t we be a little more sensitive?

A quick survey of the political landscape and the odds on a change of date seem very long indeed.

Most conservatives, of course, live empathy-free lives, busying their minds with things like the value of their homes.

Sure, they may experience brief moments of empathy – perhaps with their rich mates, when an au pair of choice might be forced to leave the country.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suggested the creation of a new national day of Indigenous cultural celebration, a sound idea.

But it fails to address the hurt caused by the symbolism around January 26, commonly referred to as ‘Invasion Day’ among Indigenous Australians.

A look to the right, by and large, shows a party devoid of imagination.

But Bill Shorten, who will become Australian politics’ Steven Bradbury should he manage to stay upright until the next election, inspires little confidence in the agility of his thinking.

What we wouldn’t give for a leader of Paul Keating’s quality right about now.

Keating had his faults, but a lack of empathy was not one of them.

“Well, basically, I reckon for 200 years we’ve been sneaking around in someone else’s backyard,” he said once as he scouted for an Indigenous affairs advisor.

A 2017 poll showed only 15 per cent of Australians wanted the date of Australia Day changed.

But, crucially, 54 per cent of Indigenous Australians polled said they supported a change of date.

That’s good enough for me.

So why not a referendum of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with whatever they decide to stand?

It might be nice for Australia’s first people to have some say in the future of a country that has so often abused and neglected them.

It would offer the rest of Australia a taste of what it’s like to be left out of the decision-making process.

Hell, it might even engender a little empathy.