Empathy Failure

Today is a public holiday in Australia to celebrate the nation. Last year I wrote this post in relation to the arrival of people on the shores of this country. I stand by it today.

Each year non-indigenous Australians learn more about the impact on our First Nation’s people of celebrating a day that means for some the sublimation of their culture, the murder of their ancestors, the reduction of their rights and the damaging gap that still exists between white Australians and indigenous Australians where health and education and many other essential aspects of life are concerned.

So each year more and more people feel that it is inappropriate to celebrate when that celebration hurts other people.

In the last few days some people have rallied in support of changing the date so that the nation can celebrate our community as a whole. The people that stand up and say this are clearly hoping that they are showing understanding to the people who find the 26th of January so upsetting.

And yet it is contentious. It causes fiery disputes. It causes reasonable Australians to grumble about the cancellation of public events that have been a tradition for probably no more than 25 years (when the date became a public holiday for all of the countries states and territories) because of “political correctness” (a phrase now spat out by many as if was as distasteful as an accusation of racism).

So I am baffled.

What is so precious about the 26th of January when it comes to the celebration of our Australia? When we can BBQ or picnic on a day that doesn’t remind people of the beginning of a time that the oldest living culture on the planet was treated worse than a mere obstacle but one so meaningless that the mass murder of human beings meant so little.
Why are some so desperate to hold onto a day that represents when white British men arrived to set up an offshore prison camp for members of the impoverished European underclass whose birthright compelled them to commit petty crime to feed their families? And with that arrival on this most ancient and revered soil,  the human inhabitants who knew the land so well and whose wisdom was so deep as to keep a rich culture going for thousands of years were then reduced to corpses or to slaves.

This does not represent my Australia.

My Australia is one where we eat Italian and Vietnamese and African food. Where we grow up with neighbours from Greek and Asian backgrounds, we learn in schools and universities alongside people newly arrived from South America, the Middle East and Europe. And we work with Aussies who were born in China and the Cook islands and Cambodia and Canada. My Australia is where teachers tell their classes the stories of The Dreaming, of the sacredness of Uluru, of the history of the paintings in ochre and in clay and iron oxide left by hunters on ancient stone that have existed through multiple generations.

This might not be your Australia. But even if it isn’t, I still don’t understand why January 26th can mean anything so positive that an alternate date that celebrates our entire population is so abhorrent that the current date must be protected at any cost.

Over the last few days, as is now the norm, the media reports the friction, the debates, the issue. So I’m asking ‘why is this an issue at all?

(And, as is the concern of this website generally:
Why is the issue of helping people seeking asylum an issue in Australia now … when our nation opened its arms to people fleeing the Vietnam war?)

WHY fume and mutter and argue and agree to disagree?

When the real question is a simple one:


… to put ourselves in the place of someone else and

  • imagine their surroundings,
  • the way people speak to them,
  • where they are able to work and live,
  • if/how they can get help and then in what form does that help come and
  • what it is to look into a future that is theirs and not our own …


When did we lose it?


When did we stop caring about everyone else but ourselves and the few people immediately around us?

When did we learn to suspect instead of to enquire?

When did we start to know instead of try to understand?

When did we stop listening to the people all around us and listen only to the privileged talking down to us?

Australians are generous and strong. They can protect their families and still support other people’s families. Australians know what it’s like to have to battle and what it means to get a little help to get back on solid ground. Australians know how it feels to be a little fish in the big pond of the world but to unite is fulfilling and together is how we move forward while apart is how we disintegrate.

So I’m not fighting with anybody about the 26th of January. I’m not debating an issue to which there is only one answer when time is precious and life is precious and energy is precious. But I will continue to ask …

Where is our empathy?

How would it feel every single minute of the day to be in the life of a person not as privileged as the one I found myself born into?


Some answers are obvious.
Some questions need to be asked more often.

The lives of others may just be the key to knowing the difference.



Click on underlined words/phrases above for more information or source material.

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