Australia Day honours: Anna Bligh and Jimmy Barnes speak up for first Australians

Naidoc female elder of the year MaryAnn Bin-Sallik and TV host Andrew O’Keefe also among those honoured who cite troubled history of 26 January

The former Queensland premier Anna Bligh has expressed support for the campaign to change the date of Australia Day, saying she is “uncomfortable that our national day celebrates a moment in history that has caused so much harm, distress and tragedy for the first Australians”.

A number of other prominent Australians honoured in Australia Day awards made reference to the troubled history of 26 January, including the singer Jimmy Barnes, the television host Andrew O’Keefe, and the Djaru elder and 2016 Naidoc female elder of the year, MaryAnn Bin-Sallik.

Bligh was made a companion of the Order of Australia, alongside the former prime minister Julia Gillard and the Tasmanian governor, Kate Warner.

“I am an avowed republican and while I am very honoured and grateful to be on the honours list this year, I do look forward to a time when these awards are made by an Australian head of state and when we can celebrate an Australia Day that does not cause offence to many Indigenous people in the community,” Bligh told Guardian Australia.

Bligh became Queensland’s first female premier when she succeeded Peter Beattie in 2007, and was recognised for her work advocating the role of women in public life, as well as her political career.

“Much of what we have seen on the global stage in the last six months is a good reflection that the status of women is something that continues to need protection,” she said.

Questions like that faced by Gladys Berejiklian, who was asked at her first press conference as New South Wales premier whether she thought it was a “disadvantage politically” that she didn’t have children, showed how far Australia had to go.

“I look forward to a time that it’s an unremarkable thing for a woman to be in a leadership position,” she said. “It’s still so rare.”

The 2017 awards recognised 958 recipients, including the mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, the former Victorian premier John Brumby, the Birpai elder William “Uncle Bill” O’Brien, and the former Victorian police commissioner Ken Lay.

Emeritus Professor Bin-Sallik, a pioneer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in higher education and the first Aboriginal person to gain a doctorate from Harvard University, was made an officer of the Order of Australia for her work as an academic, author and mentor to Indigenous students.

She said she was “honoured and humbled” by the recognition but that her Naidoc award was more meaningful. “Nothing could compare to the elder of the year,” she told Guardian Australia. “It’s recognition from my own people, it’s a whole different thing.”

Bin-Sallik said she had no qualms about accepting an accolade on Australia Day because she believed it was important the contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people be recognised and that was the national day of recognition. But she said she expected the date would change as the wider community became more aware of the history of invasion and colonisation.

“I think it needs to change because our history is never really … the wider community has never really had a true history,” she said. “I am sure if they knew why they would change it.”

Bin-Sallik completed tertiary education in the 1970s before becoming the first coordinator of the Aboriginal taskforce at the South Australian Institute of Technology. She spent her first few years trying to secure rental housing for university students, who would be turned away when the landlord saw their skin colour.

She said she was proud that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families now had three generations of university graduates.

Barnes was made an officer of the Order of Australia for his volunteer work and services to the performing arts community, alongside fellow musicians Nick Cave and Paul Kelly.

“No matter what day we celebrate Australia Day, let’s celebrate it together and give thanks to the original inhabitants of this vast country,” Barnes said. “We are lucky to be sharing it with them.”

The singer, who immigrated to Australia from Scotland as a five-year-old, also used the accolade to make a veiled comment about Australia’s immigration policy. “There are new children arriving and trying to reach our lucky country every day and I hope that we can all work together to help them find their dream too,” he said.

“I never take for granted how great Australia is and how well I have been treated here so thank you for this chance at making a good life.”

Immigration was the central issue for the television host Andrew O’Keefe, made a member of the Order of Australia for work as an ambassador and past chairman of White Ribbon and his work with the Migration Council.

O’Keefe said he felt bashful about accepting an award “for simply doing the right thing”, adding: “But I’ll accept it anyway.”

The Weekend Sunrise host – who was branded “unwatchable” by Senator Pauline Hanson after he told her former One Nation deputy David Oldfield the threat of radical Islam in Australia had been “blown out of all proportion” – said Australia should be mature enough to discuss immigration and the events of 26 January without one side being branded “un-Australian”.

“Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that event, regardless of the positives or negatives of the outcomes of that event, it was an invasion,” O’Keefe said. “The land was taken. There were so many deliberate atrocities for our first people that I fully understand why commemorating that is hurtful to Aboriginal people.”

He added that it was “not for him” to say whether the date should change.

The Queensland woman and stolen generations member Patricia Lees, made a member of the Order of Australia, does not support the campaign to change the date and said she was not troubled about accepting an award on 26 January. She said the date of a public holiday was far down the list of priorities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in her community, who are more focused on jobs, health and family violence.

“I am a person of mixed heritage, my father is Irish … I think the way of it is, you have got to let that stuff go,” she said.

Lees was taken from her mother, a Torres Strait Islander woman, in 1958, when she was 10 years old. She was placed in an orphanage, then moved to Palm Island because she was “too black”.

“Of course, at Palm Island, I had the opposite problem – I was too white,” she said.

Lees joined the navy and moved to Melbourne at 18, married at 20, moved to Mount Isa, and has spent the past 38 years volunteering and working at Injilinji Aged Care. The accolade, she said, has been “well-earned”.

Her husband, Terry Lees, was given a medal of the Order of Australia for his volunteer work in mental health.

“You can see what it’s like at our household,” Lees said. “It’s good we had our children all those years ago because we don’t have those openings now, we pass each other in the hallway when we go out to help the community.”


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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