Aboriginal singer-songwriter Dan Sultan has schooled a panel of politicians, with a simple answer to the heated Australia Day debate: listen to Indigenous voices.
Attorney-General George Brandis, Labor MP Tony Burke, independent Senator Jacqui Lambie, and Christine Forster − a Sydney councillor and the sister of former prime minister Tony Abbott − failed to reach a consensus on how Australia Day can be inclusive for Indigenous people.
But Sultan had a simple answer for the politicians on ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night.
“It’s a complicated issue but also very simple as well. Does it include everyone or doesn’t it? No, it doesn’t.”
He said there were practical ways to raise the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians.
“I think one of those practical things to do is to stop ignoring Aboriginal people when they tell you what we’re looking for and what we need,” Sultan said.
Senator Brandis disagreed that Indigenous Australians were being ignored, which Sultan refuted.
“You’re talking over me,” he countered. “This is me as an Aboriginal person telling you how an Aboriginal person feels and you’re telling me I’m not feeling that way.”
Senator Lambie, who is also Indigenous, said she’d rather focus on issues other than Australia Day.
“It’s going to make us feel great for a day, it’s not going to close the gap. That gap is killing us,” she said.
“It will be healing for 24 hours but we’re still going to be in the same situation.”
— ABC Q&A (@QandA) August 28, 2017
When host Tony Jones went back to the original questioner, she suggested canning Australia Day fireworks to instead fund Indigenous health services.
Sultan suggested the government commit to the recommendations of royal commissions into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Senator Brandis said there were parts of Australia’s history “about which we should be ashamed”, but that the date of the national holiday should remain.
“On Australia Day, we both celebrate the nation, the good nation, the good inclusive nation that Australia has become, while at the same time reflecting on those parts of our history that are dark passages,” he said.
Sultan said those “blemishes” in Australia’s history were not simply in the past.
“It’s today and it’s tomorrow. There’s still Aboriginal deaths in custody at an alarming rate. There’s still an alarming rate of suicide amongst teenagers in Aboriginal communities, it’s an ongoing genocide,” he said.
“It’s here now today, and there’s such a thing called transgenerational trauma which is real and exists.
“I think we need to have a bit of a look at ourselves and that’s okay. There are a lot of beautiful things about this country.”
Ms Forster said she believed the majority of the country supported Australia Day, and agreed with Senator Brandis that January 26 marked “the start of Australia as we know it”.
“But that said, I was talking about this issue with my 16-year-old son just today,” Ms Forster said.
“And I think perhaps Australia Day will evolve, because for his generation, it doesn’t have the same significance that it seems to have for my generation.
“I would like to see Australia take a day that is for special recognition of our Indigenous community for their history, for their contribution, for their custodianship of our country.”
Mr Burke said the country should evolve the way it observes Australia Day, and said there needed to be a day the whole nation could celebrate.
The debate came in the weeks after Melbourne’s Yarra and Darebin councils backed away from Australia Day celebrations. The federal government consequently stripped the councils of their right to conduct citizenship ceremonies.
The New Daily last week reported at least another seven councils were considering changing their celebrations on the day.