Australia Day means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s a celebration, for others it’s a day of mourning. For some it’s a day to listen to an annual music countdown, for others it’s just an extra day off work. And for some it might even mark the day they became an Australian citizen. The meaning of Australia Day is complex and personal.
Caleb Maru is one young person from Alice Springs in Central Australia who wanted to know more about Australia Day and just why it can be polarising for so many people. So, along with his friend Liam Shilton, they did just that and made a documentary in the process. It’s part of Aware Project, the online storytelling platform they founded along with Stewart Thornton.
I spoke to Caleb about the documentary and what he learnt along the way.
Firstly, has this changed how you think about Australia Day?
Definitely. I thought Australia Day was all about being patriotic — recognising the history behind it and celebrating the amazing nation we belong to. I was born here but I have Ethiopian immigrant parents. Australia Day means a lot to people like them who become citizens on the day. And that’s a lot of people. If we get rid of the day, then it’s removing a day of pride for them.
But at the same time, it is actually a day of mourning [for a large number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people]. We have to reconcile that this happened, acknowledge it and do it together. That’s an important thing — we all as a nation have the right to be upset with our history. We need to sort out our past first. Reconcile the past before you can look ahead.
How did the idea for the project come about?
There was a lot of discussion about whether Triple J should change the date of the Hottest 100 and it became a pretty pressing issue for us from there. At the time, the City of Fremantle were also considering moving their celebrations to January 28. So Liam and I started talking about it and, with a bit of research, realised it had been a topic of debate for a long time, we just weren’t aware of it.
Every year we’d celebrated Australia Day without giving it much thought. We’d been to events with our friends and listened to the Hottest 100 countdown — that was pretty much the biggest element for us. Basically, we just wanted to know more about people’s perspectives on whether it should be celebrated on January 26, if at all. So we decided to go and talk to some people about it.
Why did you need to travel around to make this documentary?
We grew up in Alice Springs and we figured what people think there isn’t necessarily what everyone thinks. We live in different cities — Melbourne and Adelaide — so we’ve realised viewpoints are pretty different everywhere. We wanted the contrast in views, so we spoke to a range of people in Alice Springs and in Melbourne.
What did you learn?
So much. It sounds like a cliche, but it was legitimately a journey. One of our key findings was that it’s not an easy thing to talk about or solve. It’s not just a matter of deciding to change the date or not, there’s so much more to it.
It was really at the end when I spoke with Mark Yettica-Paulson of Recognise, [the awareness campaign for recognition of the First Australians in the Constitution], it really brought everything together for me.
From Mark we learnt that as a young person you have a right to ask very challenging questions about why we do things the way we do. It’s our generation’s challenge to find a creative solution for how we acknowledge Australia Day. We can say, hey this is the way things have been done, but is this the way we want it to be for our children? We have the right to challenge that and change that.
You’re never going to satisfy both sides of the debate. That’s the first thing to acknowledge. But then it’s a matter of thinking creatively about ways to bring both sides together. And that starts with acknowledgement and recognition of what this day actually means.
Has this changed the way you will recognise Australia Day
I’ll be working, but I personally will not celebrate. Liam is organising a hike in Alice Springs with some friends — he’s just going to enjoy a day out bush to get away from it all.
I think, for me personally, I need to find a way I can pay my respects and acknowledge that history properly before I can go ahead and celebrate. In a sense, Mark encouraged us to figure out a way we can do both before I’ll see it as a celebration again.
FYA would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations where the interview and production of this article took place. We pay respect to elders past, present and emerging and acknowledge that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.