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Recognising Australia’s ancient wisdom

Recognising Australia as home to the world’s oldest continuous living culture is central to the nation achieving its potential as a successful and open multicultural society.

Much is being said this week about whether January 26 is a suitable date for the national day. Many Australians have concluded that we can do better than focus on the day a convict settlement was established in Sydney in 1788. It marks a day of great pain for Indigenous Australians as a seminal event in their dispossession but it also limits the vision of what Australia is and can be.

This was even clearer to me last week when I made a long overdue visit to Uluru. I have previously seen Uluru from the air and heard many times from Indigenous friends about its significance as the place from which the ancient songlines radiate across the continent.

Around Uluru, the desert oaks stand straight and tall, as if paying attention to this monolith’s significance and sacredness. Uluru is more ancient and majestic than any human-built structure and stands as a symbol of Australia’s connection to the people who survived and thrived for more than 60,000 years in this continent’s harsh climate.

Instead of celebrating the achievements and culture of Indigenous people, all too often our First Nations people have been diminished and dismissed. Australia is only beginning to realise collectively what a fundamental mistake this has been.

Recognising the history and custodianship of Australia’s Indigenous people can only enhance us, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison alluded to when announcing this month’s change of a word in our national anthem. “Changing ‘young and free’ to ‘one and free’ takes nothing away, but I believe it adds much,” he said. “It recognises the distance we have travelled as a nation. It recognises that our national story is drawn from more than 300 national ancestries and language groups and we are the most successful multicultural nation on earth.”

We have long way to go before we can truly claim to be the most successful multicultural nation on earth and much of the territory which needs to be covered involves respecting and learning from Indigenous Australia. We collectively have a lot of listening to do, both to come to terms with our nation’s history and to be inspired by the wisdom collected over millennia by our First Nations.

Those who have come to Australia as refugees and migrants have a fundamental role in this national task. They can help us all to see the issues from a fresh perspective and to show that Australia can be both steeped in its ancient past and open to the modern world.

We have nothing to fear and everything to gain from working towards becoming a nation which values the contribution of all – our First Nations, Australian-born people of migrant and refugee background and the most recently arrived. A modern, diverse nation built on the wisdom of the world’s oldest culture will have something much more significant to celebrate than the arrival of convict ships in Sydney Cove.

Phil Glendenning AM

President of Refugee Council of Australia

Co-founder of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation

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