Guilt surfaces at Australia's centenary

The nation has changed much in 100 years but it is still not at ease with its history
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The Independent Online

When proud Australians paraded through Sydney 100 years ago tomorrow to hail the birth of their independent nation, there were no black faces among the marchers, or the hat-waving crowds. There were, for that matter, only two women in the procession.

When proud Australians paraded through Sydney 100 years ago tomorrow to hail the birth of their independent nation, there were no black faces among the marchers, or the hat-waving crowds. There were, for that matter, only two women in the procession.

Aborigines were not invited to the party to mark the union of six squabbling colonies with checkpoints on their borders into a single federated nation. The new constitution ignored their existence, while the first law passed by the federal parliament enshrined the White Australia immigration policy aimed at keeping out Asians.

Organisers of a flamboyant street pageant in Sydney tomorrow which will kick off a year of centenary festivities have been careful to emphasise how much things have changed. The first floats will celebrate indigenous culture, recognising Aborigines as the original occupants of the land; others will reflect the diversity of modern, multi-cultural Australia.

But the thorns that still tear at the national psyche on the brink of 2001 are similar to those that scarred the birth of the nation: the failure of white Australians to come to terms with their painful past and their inability to walk boldly into the future.

It could have been different. If more Australians had had the courage of their convictions last year when they voted in a constitutional referendum, tomorrow would have been the first day of a new republic. And if there had been a prime minister with talent and vision, rather than the monarchist conservative John Howard, meaningful reconciliation with Aborigines might have been achieved.

Instead, the issue of republicanism is on the back burner after a scare campaign by monarchists sealed the defeat of the referendum, despite opinion polls consistently finding majority support for cutting ties with Britain.

Black communities, meanwhile, are profoundly bitter about Mr Howard's refusal to apologise for the sins of past generations. Many Aborigines regard the indigenous content of the centenary parade - like that of the opening ceremony of the recent Sydney Olympic Games - as an empty gesture, a cheap nod in the direction of political correctness.

Some saw it as an omen when the nation's most powerful icon, Uluru - formerly known as Ayer's Rock - had to be hastily written out of tomorrow's centenary script after the death last week of an elder from the Aboriginal tribe who are traditional custodians of the sacred site.

The dawn ceremony there has been moved to an old telegraph station at Alice Springs, which not only lacks the visual impact of Uluru but also has an unfortunate history: at one time it housed Aboriginal children "stolen" from their families under an officially sanctioned assimilationist policy.

That policy was already in force in 1901 when the new Australian constitution specifically excluded Aborigines from the census and prohibited the federal government from legislating on their behalf - provisions not abolished until 1967.

Many self-congratulatory articles in Australian newspapers recently have recalled the bloodless birth of the nation, pointing out that it was the consequence not of war or revolution but of rational debate and a series of democratic votes.

Federation was, however, chiefly motivated by the desire for a common defence policy amid rumours that France and Germany had colonial ambitions in the Pacific and that the seething masses of Asia were enviously eyeing the sparsely populated continent.

Moreover, 84 per cent of Australians did not or could not vote in the referendums that paved the way for Federation. Women were excluded, except in South Australia and Western Australia, as were Aborigines, except in South Australia. Indians, Chinese and Pacific islanders could not vote, and neither could people receiving aid from public or charitable institutions.

Nor did Australia achieve real independence in 1901. Britain was still responsible for foreign affairs and defence. Australia did not have its own flag or currency, nor any defining moments until the First World War, when 60,000 troops died fighting for the British Empire and the legend of the brave Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) soldier was born.

Some historians have lamented that no blood was shed when Australia was founded, speculating that a more dramatic story might have proved more memorable. All that happened a century ago was that a sedate group of men in top hats gathered in a Sydney park to proclaim the new nation. Fewer than one-fifth of Australians interviewed in 1997 could name their first prime minister, Edmund Barton.

Most of the people who lined the streets in 1901 to hail "an Anglo-Saxon Commonwealth beneath Austral [ sic] skies" were of British or Irish descent, and they wanted Australia to stay that way. The White Australia policy was enforced with the help of an arbitrary dictation test. After the Second World War, however, the country realised that it had to "populate or perish". Immigrants were admitted first from southern and central Europe, and later from Asia.

In the aftermath of Federation, Australia went on to pioneer a string of democratic reforms including secret ballots and votes for women. In the past decade, landmark court decisions have established the principle that the continent belonged to the Aborigines before the European settlers arrived, opening the way for them to return to their tribal lands.

There is no doubt that the society that has evolved in the past century is far less shaped by hierarchy and class snobbery than the British model on which it was based. If Australians are lukewarm about the centenary of Federation, it is partly because, after the new millennium and the hugely successful Olympic Games, they are worn out with celebrations.

They could also be forgiven for feeling cynical after learning that exclusive rights to photograph tomorrow's pageant from close up have been sold to the Daily Telegraph, a Sydney tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch. Even the Telegraph's sister paper, The Australian, was put out, introducing its story about the deal with these words: "Sold to the highest bidder: the birthday of a nation."