I’ve noticed, and been grieved by, how polarising the current conversation about Australia Day is on my social media. I spent Thursday night in a prayer service hosted by Christian leaders from the indigenous community, where Aunty Jean Phillips (who I meet with regularly during the year and hold in huge esteem), urged those in attendance to write to our local MPs… then I spent my public holiday yesterday enjoying a multicultural picnic with our church family (including our refugee and migrant brothers and sisters in Christ), enjoying a swim in the pool with another bunch of families, and playing backyard cricket on the fields at the end of our street with our neighbours (followed by beer and a barbeque). So I’m conflicted. I think that 24 hours represents something of the paradox of Aussie life and January 26.
I suspect a massive part of the polarising of the Australian community around all sorts of issues — including this one — is a failure to sacrificially and actively listen to other voices and to seek compromise. So, it’s in that spirit that I wrote this letter to my local MP, and copied in the local MP for the electorate our church meets in (also the Queensland Government’s minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, the Premier and the Opposition Leader).
Here’s my letter, in case it helps others formulate or express similar thoughts.
27 January, 2018
Dear Ms Corinne McMillan MP, Member for Mansfield,
The Hon Ms Anastasia Palaszckuk MP, Premier of Queensland,
The Hon Ms Deb Frecklington MP, Opposition Leader,
The Hon Ms Jackie Trad MP, Deputy Premier of Queensland, Treasurer and Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships
Re: Australia Day
On Thursday the 25th of January 2018, I attended a prayer service held by leaders from the aboriginal Christian community here in Queensland — Aunty Jean Phillips and Ms Brooke Prentis. The service was held in the West End Uniting Church (in Ms Trad’s electorate). I am an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland with a congregation also based in West End, though I live in Upper Mount Gravatt (Mansfield), so I write to Ms McMillan as a constituent.
As I listed the relevant recipients of this letter I paused for a moment to reflect on what wonderful progress it represents for our nation, in striving for equality, especially when it comes to equality of representation in our leadership that each relevant minister, member, and leader for this correspondence is a woman. This representation is both symbolic in its importance, but substantial in reality. I am thankful for you, and for the example of public service and commitment to changing the world that each of you model for my two daughters (and also for my son). The Bible urges us to pray for those in authority and to respect you, and I recognise the sacrifice and commitment to the good of our community that each of you have made in reaching these positions and am thankful for your wisdom and example. I was struck too that both leaders of this prayer service were indigenous women speaking out for another sort of symbolic and substantial change, in the name of equality, so craved by their community. Both Brooke and Aunty Jean are examples of courageous and spirited leadership and the pursuit of the improvement of our society for the good of all for my children, but for the community at large.
I write for two reasons.
Firstly, to urge the government of Queensland to continue listening to voices from the indigenous community — especially voices as reasonable and wise as these two women. I ask you to hear their lament about the conditions facing Aboriginal Australians and to recognise that the lament around Australia Day being held on the 26th of January is about a symbolic issue, but that symbols are powerful and important and have long shaped behaviours and communities. I write because I listened to Aunty Jean’s request that we take action by contacting our political leaders. I write to encourage you to meet with Aunty Jean and other leaders from the indigenous church to consider how the church might help play its part in working towards continued reconciliation and better outcomes for indigenous Australians.
Secondly, I write to express my thanks to the staff of parliament house for apparently doing just this — listening — to the elders who joined the protest on January 26 and participated in their own symbolic gesture. When I read the story about this act in The Australian, featuring quotes from the Leader of the Opposition I was struck by two things; the Opposition Leader’s obvious concern for deeper issues of justice facing our indigenous neighbours, but the irony of her taking a symbolic act (the flag lowering) seriously enough to comment, condemning the act… if symbols do not matter then surely the lowering of the flag should pass without comment?
As I listened to these two women from the indigenous community who I respect as leaders in the Christian community, I was struck by the way they understand the link between symbols and behaviour — between our nation’s desire to celebrate our shared identity or ‘national day’ on January 26, the apparent disregard for the feelings of our indigenous neighbours, and the ongoing issues facing those neighbours. I heard Aunty Jean break down in tears about health issues, especially diabetes, in the indigenous communities, and Brooke Prentis describe the social pressures that lead indigenous children to suicide. These are the litany of issues also highlighted by the Opposition leader in The Australian article: “life threatening but preventable diseases, substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment – the real issues facing our indigenous communities,” but simply that ‘Australia Day’ is a symbolic issue does not make it less real; that would depend on exactly what it is that the continued celebration of a national day on January 26th symbolises for this part of our community who are deeply and profoundly aware of these issues. Perhaps our failure to listen on a symbolic issue reflects how seriously committed we are as a nation to these deeper issues? Perhaps if we are not willing to make small sacrifices symbolically it is fair to expect that our nation will not make the substantial sacrifices required on these large issues?
Christians profoundly believe in the power of symbols because symbols represent substance and help shape behaviour. Aunty Jean often repeats her conviction that the most important symbol for reconciliation in our country is not what happens with Australia Day, but is the cross of Jesus — arguably the most recognisable symbol in the world. The cross symbolises God’s acting in reconciliation and forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus to bring both justice and peace. It is a powerful symbol of sacrifice that has served and shaped the western world for many generations, it is obviously not the government’s responsibility to take up this symbol in order to pursue reconciliation, forgiveness and justice, that is the role of the church. This is simply evidence that symbols have long mattered and have powerfully shaped our nation (the church has obviously not been blameless in indigenous issues in Australian history). The symbolism associated with celebrating our national day on a day of grief and mourning for our indigenous neighbours is significant; a sign, so to speak for how we view that grief and its legitimacy. Changing the date, or how we mark it, would also be significant, not just symbolic.
I’m thankful for the gesture of lowering the flags at Parliament House because symbols matter when they create a sense of belonging and inclusion and a platform for genuine listening and relationships. I hope that whatever happens with the marking of January 26th as a significant moment in our nation’s history that we might find shared symbols that express a desire for genuine reconciliation, and a commitment to working together on those profoundly important substantial issues, and would be happy to be part of such processes whether in my electorate of Mansfield, or within the community of West End, where our church is located.
I trust that you, as elected representatives and leaders of Queensland will act with wisdom seeking good outcomes for the people you lead and represent, and thank you for your continued service.
Rev. Nathan Campbell