Time to recognise someone was here first | OPINION

THIS year, Australia prepares to commemorate the Anzac centenary.

Its legend is etched deep in the nation’s psyche.

We retell its stories to remind ourselves of the bravery of ordinary Australians in war.

We acknowledge the profound grief and the gaping holes left after that conflict for so many Australian families, communities and the nation.

And each April, we pause as a nation to utter those important words: “Lest we forget.”

It’s a moving tradition, full of empathy and a desire to understand more deeply this formative experience and how it shaped Australia. It is central to the remembering of the nation.

If only our country would apply that same depth of empathy each Australia Day in contemplating how the first Australians faced the arrival of the British and the events that unfolded from the proclamation of a penal colony.

In these chapters of our national story, too, there was bloodshed and courage.

There was determination and tenacity.

There were Australians defending Australia.

And so we need to commemorate those events as surely as we need to commemorate the events of the Great War.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, this is not something for forgetting.

Nor should it be for any Australian.

It is something to commemorate.

Squarely facing that chapter of our past is about honouring the fallen, the lost, the bereaved.

It’s about dealing thoughtfully and empathetically with the wrong that was done to the first Australians in the act of dispossession, in the taking without consent of what was ours.

I remain of the belief, five years after I spoke up as Australian of the Year, we must have the conversation about the date of Australia Day.

There is also another important piece of work our nation will embark upon this year and must see through to completion.

That task is preparing the nation to vote yes in a referendum to recognise in Australia’s constitution a simple but important fact — that someone was here first; the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This would make our constitution and our country whole.

No longer would our founding document exclude all that came before the past 226 years.

We would have a founding document that embraces the 40,000-plus years before January 1, 1901, or January 26, 1788.

In that referendum, we also have a responsibility to remove the discrimination that still lingers in sections of our constitution, if we are to exorcise the ghosts of the White Australia Policy.

This would signal the intent of the Australian people for a future united as one.

It would also start to address the country’s yearning for a less uneasy relationship with the facts of our past.

When we can look at the past without flinching, when we can deal empathetically and more honestly with the searing parts of our history, then we can make real progress together.

It would make our remembering complete.

Without that honesty, the conversation hasn’t even truly begun.

Australians would never declare that we should “just get over it” when it comes to the commemoration of the Anzacs.

Why, then, should that demand be made of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians about the events of a century before that?

Both should be commemorated, each as surely as the other.

Professor Mick Dodson was named Australian of the Year in 2009.