Australian First Nations activist refuses Australia Day award

Australia has not once apologised, and meant it, for the invasion of Aboriginal lands. There has been no acknowledgement of the massacres that remain hidden under a 'pioneers' version of Australian history. There is no effort to genuinely undo the wrongs that still affect Aboriginal people today.

Michel Mansell

Aboriginal leader Michael Mansell in 2012 (Source: The Australian Picture: Matthew Newton)

Amy Corderoy Sydney Morning Herald 29 October 27 2013

Prominent Aboriginal lawyer and activist Michael Mansell says he cannot morally accept an Australia Day award nomination because the day is inextricably linked to the invasion of Australia by white settlers.

Mr Mansell is a finalist in the Senior Australian of the Year award for his dedication to "social, political and legal reform to improve the lives of Tasmanian Indigenous People".

But he said he could not in good conscience accept it or the Tasmanian nomination because it is a key part of the Australia Day celebrations, which is a race-based day that "marks the coming to Australia of whites".

"Australia has not once apologised, and meant it, for the invasion of Aboriginal lands," he said. "There has been no acknowledgement of the massacres that remain hidden under a 'pioneers' version of Australian history. There is no effort to genuinely undo the wrongs that still affect Aboriginal people today."

Mr Mansell said he was not concerned that his public rejection of the award would lead to a backlash from some sections of the community.

Tasmanian Aboriginal leader Michael Mansell and his granddaughter Katana in Canberra for PM Rudd's apology in 2008.

"I think it's important that when something isn't right, that people speak up about it," he told Fairfax Media.

He said other countries such as the United States and New Zealand would not have national days that coincided with the day settlers invaded the land of indigenous peoples.

"There is a growing movement of people who believe that celebrating on January 26 is the wrong date because it is a race-based celebration and that is not appropriate," he said. "It is one thing to acknowledge the fact of invasion; it is quite another to celebrate it."

Mr Mansell also said other Aboriginal leaders who had accepted Australia Day awards in the past were "star-struck" and had abandoned principles for personal glory.

"In my opinion, any person (not just Aboriginals) who accepts these nominations without condemnation of the essence of Australia Day celebrations, lacks a social conscience," he said in a statement. "There may come a time when it is legitimate for Aborigines to accept these nominations: when a treaty has been made between Aborigines and Australia to include land, an Aboriginal Assembly and 8 seats in the 150 strong Federal Parliament."

He said until such time "while I am grateful for the thoughts behind my nomination, I would be a hypocrite to accept it".

A qualified barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Tasmania and High Court of Australia, Mr Mansell established the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in 1972. He also played an integral role in drafting legislation for the Native Title Act.

"His advocacy has struck a raw nerve with some, but his courage and tenacity are admired by many," his Senior Australian of the Year award nomination notes.

The National Australia Day Council said Mr Mansell had the right to decline his award.

Deputy Chairwoman Shelley Reys said many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were achieving great things and should be acknowledged for their contributions, just like everyone else.

"I am very proud of this and the growing number of Indigenous Australians nominated each year," she said.

She added that it was not the Council's role to choose or change the date of Australia Day.

"We have a shared history - we acknowledge that our shared past has been a difficult one, where Indigenous people have been marginalised and discriminated against," she said. "It is the National Australia Day Council's intent to acknowledge our shared past and to move away from a discriminatory, single-focused view of what Australia Day means."

The winners of the Australian of the Year Awards will be announced on January 25.