Should Aussies Stop Honouring John Howard’s Harmony Week?

Harmony Week: A time which sounds based when you don’t know its dark history. A celebration from March 20 until March 26 that’s dope if you cruelly ignore the facts. 

On March 20, our Minister for Immigration, Andrew Giles, proved this point. He did so by mentioning all the positives of Harmony Week while ignoring its worrisome origins. 

“Welcome to a week of celebrating our wonderful, diverse, and vibrant multicultural society,” said Giles.

“We’re privileged to share this beautiful country with the world’s oldest continuing culture. This is a fundamental part of who we are.

“We’re working together to ensure diversity and equity are part of our everyday reality. It starts with little things. Whether it’s at school or the workplace, at our many cultural or sports centres, this Harmony Week, share an aspect of your culture, engage in meaningful conversations, make an effort, and learn something new.”

However, as I’ve already mentioned, the origins of Harmony Week aren’t all that great. In fact, they’re super crummy. So, let’s jump into the details now.

John Howard’s Harmony Day

Warning: This article deals with the topic of targeted violence against a group of South Africans may be triggering for some readers.

On March 21, 1960, the South African town of Sharpeville was protesting the governmental system of apartheid. They were segregated from white people, under an all-white government, and needed an internal passport to travel anywhere.

At this particular time, the people of Sharpeville were upset that they always needed their internal passports. These passports limited when, where, and how easily they could move around the country. It was messed up. You get why they were protesting. 

However, the police force then got involved in the worst way possible. Yup, they brutally opened fire, shooting into the crowd. History has recorded that 69 unarmed protesters were killed in this attack. Likewise, 180 individuals were injured. This series of murders is now collectively called the Sharpeville massacre. 

Six years later, the United Nations named March 21: The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This day is to honour the souls that died in the Sharpeville massacre. It’s also a time that reminds us that we still need to crush and squish racism across the Earth.

However, in 1999, the Liberal Government of the time eradicated Australia’s relationship with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. They plastered over it with Harmony Week and Harmony Day.

This move was an insidious one. Because on March 21’s Harmony Day, you don’t have to acknowledge a brutal massacre. You instead get to have a party. You don’t have to acknowledge racism. You instead can just chat about all the stuff that humans have in common. 

“If you think about the difference between those two concepts, harmony is a very positive thing, it makes you feel good,” said Christina Ho, an Associate Professor in Social and Political Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney.

“Talking about racial discrimination is a lot more confronting.”

What’s more, Ho believes that this change was deliberate. This is because John Howard, the Prime Minister of that time, now has a legacy of undermining progressive initiatives.  

“This was a very socially conservative government that didn’t want to acknowledge racism, didn’t want to say sorry to Indigenous people,” said Ho. “There used to be a minister for immigration and multiculturalism, but the Howard government removed the word multiculturalism.”

“It was actually a deliberate political move. That is something that we can question now.”

If this article brings up any issues for you or anyone you know, or you have experienced targeted violence, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

Is Harmony Week Changing?

Now, let’s circle back around to our Minister for Immigration, Giles. Because he actually mentioned International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in his Harmony Week speech. 

Giles said that Harmony Week starts with “International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: A day that called on the international community to step up its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.”

“We’ve come a long way as a nation, but there is still much more work to do. We’ve grown, and we’re increasingly not afraid of having difficult conversations about our past, present, and future, of questioning our ways and acknowledging our mistakes, and finding new ways to live better, in harmony.”

However, these comments by Giles beg the question: Can Harmony Week and International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination take place at the same time?

Well, I’m not sure that they can. As we’ve discussed, one is a celebration, the other is a day of mourning. It doesn’t make sense to party hard at a funeral. 

Perhaps, like Australia Day, Harmony Week should be moved. ‘Cause there’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrating diversity and multiculturalism. In fact, celebrating these qualities is vital. They just can’t come at the expense of our history.

Related: Why We Need to Change the Date of Australia Day

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