LOOKING FORWARD: Gympie emerging elder Russell Bennet says any decision on the Australia Day date will benefit Aboriginal people.
LOOKING FORWARD: Gympie emerging elder Russell Bennet says any decision on the Australia Day date will benefit Aboriginal people. Scott Kovacevic

'Change the date or not it's a win for us'

THE debate to change the Australia Day date is fiercely defended on both sides, but Gympie's emerging elder Russell Bennet thinks the winner has already been determined.

"Whether they change the date or not it's a win for us,” Mr Bennet said.

"If you change the date we win that battle, if you don't change the date we get to talk about every issue that's ever affected us.”

Asked if he had his own preference, Mr Bennet was in favour of returning it to June 30.

As it was, he felt unable to celebrate a day which marked the start of hundreds of years of misery for indigenous people.

"Look at Hiroshima. You don't see the Japanese go out and celebrate that, or 9-11, Americans aren't going to celebrate that.”

"So why should we celebrate something that's affected millions?” he said.

However, he said, overall it was an issue which paled in the grand scheme.

"I think we've got bigger fish to fry than worrying about a date.

"We really need to concentrate on things like equality of employment and equality of lifestyle.

"Until we get that equality of employment we're never going to get that lifestyle,” he said.

As it stands, Mr Bennet is thrilled the debate around January 26 means indigenous issues are put front and centre in the media spotlight.

And it was an awareness which was needed.

"It surprises me how little non-indigenous people actually know about the issues that affect indigenous people,” he said.

Most pressing was the employment rate.

Mr Bennet said a lot of indigenous people were only employed part-time.

The options, he said, were either work multiple jobs like he did or have only the one and stay on unemployment benefits.

He was especially focussed on improving education, something which had been great for his own family.

Two of his children were studying at university, while his third was working as a professor of English in China.

Proud of his Gubbi Gubbi/Waka Waka/ Kullili heritage, Mr Bennet hoped the continued debate on these issues would encourage more involvement in indigenous culture.

Only then would real change become possible.

"You need the rest of Australia to get behind our indigenous people, start celebrating our culture, start being involved with any indigenous things that go on,” he said. "I'd like to see us concentrate on NAIDOC week. Expand that, bring more of the wider community into that.”

Having lived his whole life in Gympie (in fact, he thinks he is the first indigenous male to own his own home in Gympie), he was pleased there had been a visible change over the years.

"Gympie has moved forward. There's a lot more opportunities here for indigenous people than there ever was.”

"It's up to individuals to grasp those opportunities and try and move forward with the rest of the country. We don't want to be lingering around as fringe dwellers and on unemployment benefits, we want to move forward.”

And with Australia Day once more on the horizon, how did he usually spend it himself?

"I don't do too much at all, either something family-oriented or stay at home and mow the yard.

"To me to celebrate it would be thinking about all those people who have suffered over the last couple of hundred years.”

Gympie Times


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