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Defining Moments

Rock art: a hunter fending off a Thylacoleo carnifex. Photograph: Amy Toensing/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Paul Daley, Australia’s defining moments: a great conversation-starter for our entire nation, The Guardian, 16 October 2014

Tony Abbott sees the arrival of the first fleet as Australia’s defining moment. Other Australians disagree: they want it to be archaeological evidence of the first people 52,000 years ago.

In late August, Tony Abbott launched a National Museum of Australia initiative to identify the defining moments in this country’s history.

Predictably perhaps, and controversially, the Anglophile Abbott nominated the arrival of the first fleet on 26 January, 1788, as the defining moment in this continent’s history.

Abbott chose Arthur Phillip’s landing in Botany Bay from 100 moments that had been collated by museum staff in consultation with a group of distinguished Australian historians. Instructively, given that the nominated events span 52,000-plus years, Abbott’s national moment of choice was, metaphorically speaking, just yesterday in terms of continental history.

Abbott’s timing coincided with his government’s faltering resolve to prosecute the case this parliamentary term to incorporate Indigenous Australians into the Constitution, and with a national curriculum review that would restore weight to the legacy of western civilization. His timing, I’d say, was as determined as his decision to nominate white settlement – invasion to this continent’s first people – as the rather than a defining moment. . .

New defining moments have been pouring in. Many – Nova Peris’s Olympic gold medal in 1996, Helen Minroy becoming the first Indigenous medical practitioner (improbably in just 1983), the black moratorium marches (1972) and Nicky Winmar lifting his St Kilda guernsey to declare “I’m black and I’m proud to be black” (1993) – have a distinctly Indigenous tone.

Other publicly volunteered moments include Dutch navigator Dirk Hartog landing on an island off Western Australia (1616), Australia 11’s America’s Cup win (1982), Medicare (1984), the Cronulla race riots (2005) and the swearing in of Australia’s first female prime minister by the first female governor general Quentin Bryce (2010).

The museum noted: “Many conversations about the project have revolved around support for (and against!) moments on the Museum’s initial list. The strongest support has been voiced for the first moment on the list – that which recognises archaeological evidence of the first people on the Australian continent 52,000 years ago.”

This speaks of an eagerness to define Australian identity broadly, generously and beyond the top-down historical orthodoxies that have long driven and confined such national logue.

The museum’s initiative here is a welcome conversation-starter in a country whose leaders persistently view nationhood through the narrow, largely masculine moments of European settlement and that other invasion – Gallipoli.

It’s precisely what our national institutions should be doing. More please.

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