Recent debates about celebrating Australia Day on January 26 have triggered some reflection on my part.
I was initially less-than-enthusiastic about shifting Australia’s national day of celebration from 26 January. My views have now changed and I concede that, at best, the date is problematic.
January 26 marks the anniversary of the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Philip and the First Fleet landed in Sydney and claimed the continent of Australia for Britain. There is no doubt that European settlement in Australia represented a considerable technological and political achievement for Britain, but it was an unmitigated disaster for Australia’s aboriginal population who lost their land, succumbed to disease and were stripped of their culture. When Australia’s constitution was drafted in the 1890’s, aborigines were specifically excluded as citizens and denied the opportunity to participate fully in Australian civic life. (A referendum in 1967 restored citizenship and voting rights).
The problem with celebrating Australia Day on January 26 is that for the first Australians, there is nothing to celebrate. Our national day specifically excludes an important part of our citizenry by officially rejoicing whilst they grieve. At best, Australia Day can be viewed as a historical legacy of British colonialism but many are increasingly seeing it as a divisive and insensitive event. In an inclusive democracy, a country’s national day should be a unifying event, unencumbered with such burdens.
Australia Day must be a true celebration of what is good about our nation; for instance our robust liberal democracy, our independence, our shared values of justice, fairness and freedom, our lifestyle and our beautiful lands.
Whilst having our national day on January 26 doesn’t preclude these things, it also implicitly celebrates colonialism and White Settlement by pretending that this is Australia’s “birthday”. There is no escaping this fundamental truth.
As a whole, Australia’s aboriginal population continues to suffer from poorer educational opportunities, poorer health outcomes, racism and a disproportionate incarceration rate. Efforts have been made to remedy some fundamental injustices, such as restoring Native Title, apologising to the Stolen Generations and initiating an “intervention” to close the gap in health and education. All have been controversial, but there have mostly been good intentions behind each even if there remains much work to do.
Facing this appalling reality, how can we sincerely stand proud and tell the world that we are a nation that believes in justice, democracy and freedom whilst we celebrate the very event that initiated these injustices?
We cannot change the past. What has happened has happened. Yet if we are to create a better version of ourselves and our nation, then we need to collectively reflect upon the real significance of January 26.
Conservatives would attack a change in date as an attack on Australia’s British heritage and our past. A change in date should not be seen in these terms. Instead, changing the date would actually allow our Aboriginal brothers and sisters to fully participate in our civic celebration without the corresponding pain. We all collectively benefit from a robust democracy, a fair justice system and generous personal freedoms and we should all be invited to the table to celebrate. British settlement brought many good things to Australia, so we should not ignore or downplay our British colonial history, but we should also have enough insight to understand that there is more to our national story than 231 years of European settlement.
I am not interested in historical revisionism, but I am interested in national healing. Together we are stronger and it is to Australia’s advantage that we consider changing our national day as part of a broader approach to reconciliation with our nation’s first peoples.
Some municipalities in Melbourne have unilaterally decided to abandon Australia Day. I don’t agree with this approach because January 26 is, for now, our national day and it should be respected as such until the Australian people see fit to change it. This is a prerogative of the Commonwealth parliament, not local councils.
For what it’s worth, my nomination for an alternative national day of celebration is May 9. This is the day that the Commonwealth parliament met for the first time and Australia made laws as an independent sovereign nation. The parliament is for everyone – it is our most important national institution – and stands proud as a credible defender of liberal democratic values domestically and internationally. It is also the one institution that can truly bring social justice to indigenous Australians and heal our nation’s sores.
January 26 does not commemorate the birth of our nation, but May 9 arguably could.
There is probably insufficient public support at present to shift Australia Day, I acknowledge this. Just search your soul and give these matters some thought as I have done. You may be surprised at the outcome of your reflection.