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Australia Day

Address by Michael Pembroke – Fellowship of First Fleeters – Australia Day Luncheon


21 January 2017


Dame Marie, Sir Nicholas, distinguished guests, Denis Smith and ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting Gillian and me to lunch. And thank you for the privilege of addressing you on this auspicious occasion.


From Colony to Federation


As some of you may know, my roots go back to the establishment of the colony of New South Wales and the foundation of modern Australia. My mother can trace her lineage to John Lucas, seventh child of Nathaniel Lucas and Olivia Gascoigne, who arrived safely – courtesy of Arthur Phillip – in Botany Bay in January 1788. Nathaniel became a favourite of Philip Gidley King, Phillip’s trusted lieutenant and subsequently a Governor himself. In 1806, King appointed Nathaniel as the colony’s Supervisor of Carpenters – a job description that we would probably now call ‘Director of Public Works’.


In 1817, Nathaniel’s son John married the daughter of Captain Rowley of the Marine Corps. Their eldest son, also called John, lived from 1818 until 1902, seeing in the new century and the new nation. He had a successful career in politics and business, and was much favoured by Henry Parkes, who appointed him to the Legislative Council. Parkes was, of course, the ‘father of Federation’ and Phillip was, as the plaque laid recently in Westminster Abbey attests, the ‘founder of modern Australia’.


My mother can therefore justly claim that her ancestors were ‘present at the creation’ – at the establishment of the colony of New South Wales in 1788 and at the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Lucas, by the way, opposed Federation because he thought it would diminish the revenues available to New South Wales. Some things never change.


Parkes and Phillip


There is another connection between the visionary Henry Parkes and the inspirational Arthur Phillip. Parkes, more than anyone else, appreciated the significance of Phillip’s foundational achievement. It was he who commissioned the colossal statue of Phillip that stands just inside the Royal Botanic gardens opposite the State Library. Phillip is facing towards the Heads at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, the majestic sandstone portal through which he first came in an advance party, in a longboat rowed by seamen, on 21 January 1788; the same entrance through which so many hundreds of thousands of grateful, sometimes desperate, migrants have since arrived in this wonderful country.


On that summer day in 1788, Phillip’s men were the first Europeans in all history to enter what he described as the ‘finest harbour in the world’. His civil officers, mostly educated, young, somewhat romantic men of the late Enlightenment, were awed by the sparkling beauty of what lay before them. They believed – like Phillip – that they were serving the cause of humanity and recorded moving descriptions in their journals.


By the time Phillip departed, less than five years later, a new society, built from absolutely nothing, had begun to thrive. Phillip thought the colony would one day become, to use his own words, ‘the Empire of the East’ and ‘the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made’. His optimism was justified – and has been amply demonstrated – but the little settlement only pulled through in its first years because of Phillip’s leadership and the personal qualities that he demonstrated.


Humanity and Compassion


Among those personal qualities were humanity and compassion. Phillip was not just the founder of modern Australia, he set the tone for the generous, liberal and fair-minded society that we have inherited – one of which we can be proud, and which we should strive to maintain, notwithstanding the modern-day clamour from some less generous souls.


Phillip demonstrated his humanity in several ways. You all know his attitude to slavery. He had witnessed Portuguese slavery in Brazil and Dutch slavery at the Cape of Good Hope and well knew the dominant role played by British commercial interests in the Atlantic slave trade. From London before departing, at a time when slavery underpinned the prosperity of all of the world’s colonial powers, he wrote that ‘There can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves’. At the same time, on the other side of the Pacific, in the newly-formed United States of America, some politicians and citizens clung so tenaciously to the institution of slavery that eighty years later it would cause a civil war.


Phillip’s treatment of the convicts was another example of his compassion. He was lenient – surprisingly so – while being correspondingly harsh on any marines and seamen who transgressed. Some Englishmen complained about Phillip’s egalitarianism. Some found it baffling and unsettling. Major Ross, his difficult and irascible deputy, expostulated in a letter home – ‘Could I possibly have imagined that I was to be served with no more butter than any of the convicts, I most certainly would not have left England!’ It was all part of the absurdly ambitious social experiment that Phillip sought to implement – to improve and reform the convicts; to emancipate them and make them the pillars of a simple rural society; to give them small acreages so they could settle and cultivate the land, raise children and be re-born through physical labour and subsistence farming. Nothing like it had been tried before. But the experiment worked.


Phillip’s humanity was also evident in his attitude to the Aborigines. And it deserves to be better understood. The foundational emblem of the early relationship was Phillip’s brave and peaceful approach to the frightened and awestruck indigenous men who gathered on the beach at Botany Bay to stare at the eleven strange ships that had entered their world. When he was rowed ashore, Phillip’s arms were outstretched, all guns were down. Within a very short time, the sailors were dancing a jig with the Aborigines on the sand – to much hilarity on both sides. Phillip even ordered one of the sailors to show his genitals to demonstrate that the visitors were, in essential respects, like their ‘hosts’.


There were other ways in which Phillip saw the Aborigines as equals. He intended to give them the protection of English law, writing once again from London before the fleet sailed, that ‘any man who takes the life of a Native, will be put on his trial as if he had killed one of the Garrison’. And Phillip’s official instructions – I should remind you, because they are often overlooked – required him to ‘conciliate the affections of the Aborigines’; to encourage everyone to ‘live in amity and kindness’ with them; and to punish those who should ‘wantonly destroy them or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations’. Phillip took his instructions seriously. When he was ritually speared at Manly Cove, and expected to die, he directed that there be no retaliation.


Nonetheless, as we all know, the Aborigines were undoubtedly dispossessed, their lands appropriated, their fishing and hunting grounds ruined. Phillip and his officers may have been enlightened, tolerant and chivalrous in accordance with the spirit of the age, but they could not see that they were invaders. Nor could Phillip understand why Bennelong, whom he kidnapped and treated like a son, would choose to run away. But one winter’s day in 1790, perhaps the penny dropped. Phillip wrote wistfully, and probably insightfully, to Sir Joseph Banks saying that ‘nothing will make these people amends for the loss of their liberty’.


Australia Day


This is the conundrum that we face every year. There is no doubt that the symbolism of 26 January is uncomfortable for many Australians. It is not a date that celebrates the unity of the nation. It is not a date that applies with equal force to all its peoples.


Furthermore, it is a somewhat arbitrary date, whose description as ‘Australia Day’ and celebration as a national holiday, are of relatively recent origin. 26 January is not the day when Phillip first came to Sydney Cove. Nor is it the day when the fleet first arrived. Nor is it the day when the royal proclamation was read in the name of George III.


And it was not until 1935 that all the states and territories agreed to use the name ‘Australia Day’ to mark 26 January; and not until 1994 that they began to celebrate that day uniformly as a public holiday. It is really not difficult to understand why the significance of the date has sometimes had limited appeal outside New South Wales, especially of course in South Australia.


And opposition to the choice of date is not a new phenomenon. By the time of the sesquicentenary in 1938, there were substantial protests. That year the Australian Aborigines Conference declared 26 January to be a ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’. Almost eighty years later, it continues. In its current holiday edition, The Saturday Paper is running an Australia Day boycott campaign, contacting artists and performers to pull out of Australia day concerts and urging businesses to encourage their staff to work the holiday.


I am afraid to say that there is no getting away from the fact that the choice of 26 January will always be a focus of resentment and unhappiness for some Australians.


Federation Day – 1 January


May I leave you with the thought that a more appropriate day to celebrate the unity, the bounty and the good fortune of this lucky country may well be 1 January – a day which is beyond criticism; one which all Australians can join in without hesitation; one that celebrates our unification; when the independent colonies joined together in one magnificent federation; when the Commonwealth of Australia first came into existence.


There is, of course, every reason to honour and celebrate Phillip’s majestic achievement in founding the settlement from which this country has grown and multiplied. It is in a real sense a foundation day. But it is not inclusive. The national day of most countries is one that celebrates – inclusively and unambiguously – the nation’s collective harmony, unity and solidarity.


Canada’s national day on 1 July celebrates the unification of the separate colonies into one dominion. India’s national day, which coincidentally is 26 January, celebrates its declaration of independence, which took legislative effect on 26 January 1950. New Zealand’s national day celebrates the Treaty of Waitangi, which among other things, made an accord with the Maori and guaranteed them rights to their land. The United States national day celebrates the declaration of independence by the thirteen American colonies. These are all unifying events. I could give you many more. The same cannot be said with confidence about our current national day.


Federation Day – 1 January – does achieve that sense of unity. And it has the added advantage of avoiding the antagonism of all those worthy citizens of aboriginal descent whose ancestors resided in this country tens of thousands of years before Phillip arrived to build a new society in the name of Great Britain.

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