Film and Book Reviews

Stan Grant on Australia Day, and so much more

BookAustralia Day by Stan Grant (HarperCollins, 2019)

By Peter Adam

This book is well described in its media release: “A sad, wise, beautiful, reflective and troubled book.” I would add, it is also a gracious, eirenic, and important book. It is a book about Australia Day, but it is more a book about what it is to be an Australian. Stan Grant comes from Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi and Irish heritages, and these add a particularly powerful pathos to his writing. It is both deeply personal, and also engages with wide social, cultural and political issues. We all came to this land, whether 65,000 years ago, 200 years ago, or more recently. We are all boat (or plane) people! We are here together in this land. What do we want Australia to be? How do we build a cohesive, loving and just community? What are our shared values and our shared hopes? What is it to be truly Australian?

Grant focuses his well-written and informative discussion on five features of identity: land, family race, history and nation. The book is full of paradoxes. We are profoundly shaped by our identity, and our identity is an aspect of our contribution to society, yet “the politics of identity is among the great perils of our time” (p. 5). What a perceptive comment! We continue to honour those who have died fighting for freedom, but do not honour those Indigenous people who died fighting for their freedom in their land (p. 143). Liberalism “has sown the seeds of both destruction and liberation” (p. 153). A future Australia Day “will still likely be a day of protest, a day of sadness, and a day of joy and thanks” (p. 241).

Grant provoked me to reflect that while our politicians focus on our economy (an appropriate subject for reflection, research, decision and action), our society, our community, our nation, also need attention. We could have a wonderful economy and a rotten society! Our society, our community, our nation also need to be the subject of reflection, research, decision and action. While we have apologised for the “stolen generation”, we have not yet apologised for the “stolen land”. There has not yet been an adequate response to the Statement from the Heart of 2017.

One of the ironies of the book is its strong dependence on the values of the Enlightenment, the values of a modern Western liberal democracy, and yet it also demonstrates the weaknesses of this worldview in practice in Australia. One of the weaknesses of this worldview and its political systems and values is that it is too optimistic, and so ill-equipped to deal with intentional violent and destructive evil, with widespread systemic selfishness, and with major divisions and disagreements. It takes robust and energetic political leadership in a democracy to deal with these pressures. And if wise and just leadership is not available, then foolish and corrupt leadership may fill the vacuum in times of crisis. And to paraphrase Abbie Hoffman, “Democracy is not something you believe in, it’s something you do.” So democracy is weakened by good people who do nothing, as it is destroyed by evil people who do evil. Democracy does not work unless we learn to love our neighbours systemically as well as personally!

This is a book about Indigenous issues, but much more than that. It is a book about Australian identity. You will be enriched, educated and challenged by reading it, whenever your family came to Australia. What a good book to read in preparation for Australia Day 2020!

The Revd Dr Peter Adam OAM is Vicar Emeritus of St Jude’s Carlton and Canon Emeritus of St Paul’s Cathedral.