Australians All: Toward an Ecology of Universal Freedoms

 
Yarra River, Wurundjeri country at Lower Plenty, VIC… Image by Shinen Wong

Australia, ‘Love it or leave it’.

You’ve seen it on T-shirts at Woolies.

It’s probably the most common vulgarised expression of Australian nationalism. Hearing or seeing it at some stage on our national holiday is quite likely, depending on where you are and who you associate with.

But can we actually love it or leave it?

The power of a statement like this – about who we are – compels us to belong to a larger community. But it is also an inherently ambivalent statement, irrespective of cultural background. Who can look at this statement and not wonder what it is that we are committing to, and who it is that we think we are as a country? What sacrifices must we make to be part of a team who tells others, ‘Love it, or leave it’?

For some Australians, finding their way through this ambivalence is an even harder question. The truth is that some of us are imagined at the margins of the national community much more than others. There is in fact more to lose as an Aboriginal person, or a Muslim Australian, or an Asian Australian, if we do not love it.

Every year, we see this conundrum, about what we need to do to be part of the team. It can be put to us like the teenagers at the Big Day Out years ago who were told that they were required to kiss the flag or take a beating. At a broader macro-level, not just on Australia Day, more Australian citizens discover each year that they are also on the margins and that whatever it is they love about Australia, it is not enough.

Every nation has a national day, and generally nations have reason to celebrate this. But only a handful of nations ensure that their national day is premised on the ongoing dispossession of a proportion of its own populace.

Many of us know Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet onto the territory of the Eora Nation on 26 January 26 1788. Many of us also know, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people, along with other Australians, commemorate this day as Invasion Day.

  

The National Indigenous Television (NITV) formally recognises this day as Survival day, a day that marks not only the arrival of colonial culture, but also the resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, whose cultures, the oldest continuing in the world, survive and thrive til today. Some, like Melbourne-based Arrente woman Celeste Liddle, argue that changing the date of Australia Day from Jan 26 may derail from precisely the need for ongoing, visible public protest, commemoration of Aboriginal resistance/resilience, and negotiations around treaty.

Unfortunately, many may neither understand nor care. It is simply easier to believe the sum total of Australia’s history is reducible to a handful of national myths and mutable slogans, like the ‘fair go’, ‘mateship’ and ‘she’ll be right’.

Freedom
As people of Asian descent in Australia, commanded to ‘Love it or leave it’, while implicated as settlers in the ongoing struggles around Aboriginal sovereignty, we want to take this opportunity to reflect on the attendant freedoms that come from our success as a modern, multicultural nation.

We are peculiarly attuned to the unresolved nature of the Australian national project, epitomised not only in debates around changing the date of our national day, but also in the way colonial encounters have set ghostly precedents for their descendants. This is evident in the public debates about rights of expression and freedom of speech, as in: the freedom to speak, the freedom to assert our agency through voice, the freedom, indeed, also to offend. We maintain the freedom to critique religion, particularly religiously inspired institutionalism, as it hampers and constrains what should otherwise be remembered as our shared and innate human rights.

Yet, why is this the freedom and right Australia returns to in a time of intensified global terrorism, rather than the right to not be made stateless, the right to legal representation irrespective of citizenship, the right to privacy, or our collective right to freedom of information?

While we maintain the fundamentality of free speech in our exercise of this freedom, we cannot, in good conscience, also assert it as the only necessary right or freedom during these dangerous times.

The attendant obligations of this freedom make themselves clear, as mediated by our commitments to other freedoms: the freedom to worship, to practice our religion as a constitutional right, the freedom from physical violence, freedom from prejudice, freedom from want, freedom from addiction, freedom from unnecessary oppression, falsity and exploitation.

We maintain, also, the freedom to love, to be loved, to care and be cared for, when we are sick, when we are old, when we are confronted by death or disability, our own or that of our loved ones, regardless of sex, sexuality or gender. We maintain freedom of opportunity, the freedom to agitate for these opportunities where they have been denied, or where barriers to entry for our particular person or community are unjustly high.

The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen conceptualised this approach to freedom in more dense theoretical terms, as a ‘capabilities’ approach, that centred a new theory of welfare economics on what individuals were enabled to do.  

We maintain here that the right to dissent is precisely a quintessential freedom of democratic belonging. That is, our open and passionate dissent and inquiry is paradoxically also a manifestation of our commitment to the betterment of our national polity. We reflect here on bell hooks’ words on accountability, forgiveness and compassion from a 1998 interview: “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” 

In the spirit of hooks’ ethics on compassionate accountability, we assert here a series of political freedoms which we maintain as democracy enthusiasts, and which we understand to be in ongoing, sometimes conflicting relationship to one another. The relationships between these freedoms are mediated through an ongoing practice of critical, collective reflection, discernment, and development.

By naming these issues, we intend within the AADC in 2016 to role-model a particular version of participatory democracy, that is committed to widening the voices that can be heard. We exist to counteract the dominant narratives whose exclusions are demonstrable, unapologetic and remain unquestioned in mainstream media.

As we reflect on the making of a nation, we implicitly reclaim nationalism from extremism, which we define as the unreflective, ethnocentric attachment to particular doctrines around freedom that are unmediated by any attention to their limitations or the consideration of others. An “Australia Day” for all of us means we are able to ask hard questions about Australian sovereignty.

The health of our polity can be measured in part through an exploration into our ecology of freedoms. We unearth the myth of our origins, in order to rehabilitate these from extremism, to identify where we have come from, and with sobriety ask questions about where we are at, and where we could go.

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This article was written on the lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation. We dedicate this piece to the ongoing healing of country, justice for all Aboriginal people.

The Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) is a non-partisan organisation. One of our ongoing commitments is to contribute a monthly blog in collaboration with Peril magazine. To find out more about this collaboration read here. If you want more information or would like to write for us, get in touch with us, Jen Tsen Kwok or Shinen Wong at aadc@peril.com.au

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Jen Tsen Kwok and Shinen Wong

Author: Jen Tsen Kwok and Shinen Wong

Jen works in policy and research for the NTEU. He completed a PhD in sociology in 2013 and is an Honourary Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. He is preparing his thesis for publication with Brill. Shinen works in public health and adult education. He has a B.A in Gender Studies from Dartmouth College, USA and a G.Dip in Buddhist Studies from the University of Sydney. He is currently undertaking a Masters of Education in Adult Learning at Monash University.

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