Thoughts on Australia Day

It seems an appropriate time to announce I’m back, although since I don’t have any follow-ups organised I might regret it!

When I was a kid we went for barbecues on Australia Day and I didn’t really think too much about it – it was our national day, when we celebrated how lucky we were to live in Australia.  As I got older and learnt more history it started to bug me – the 26th of January is the beginning of a penal colony in NSW.  What does it have to do with the rest of Australia?  It wasn’t even a viable colony – that had to wait for the arrival of the second fleet which had the women on board.  And it certainly had nothing to do with the two thirds of the continent that isn’t in the East.  As a good little West Aussie school girl I was taught about the settlement of Albany – which was done in order to claim WA before the French could.  So obviously it hadn’t been claimed back in 1788 and the 26th of January is irrelevant in WA.

In uni I started learning more about Aboriginal people and it got worse.  I’ve lived and worked in Aboriginal communities for 12 years now, so I’ve heard a lot of first hand stories about the impact of white settlement.  The missions, the stolen generation are only part of it – I’ve been to the site of massacres and been privileged to walk the path of both people expelled from Moola Bulla station in the Kimberley and the Gurindji walk-off led by Vincent Lingiari, two pivotal events in the history of Australian race relations.  Interestingly, I’ve never personally heard an Aboriginal person refer to ‘Invasion Day,’ in my experience it is a phenomenon of the media and politicians.  However I sympathise with the concept.

So what to do?  I’m proud of being Australian.  I want to celebrate all it means to be Australian, I acknowledge that there are injustices and negatives in our past, but this is still a wonderful country that I feel lucky to live in.  But I don’t like celebrating such a negative date, which echoes with injustice to both those who were brought here and those who were already here, and ignores at least two thirds of our geography.

While researching this post I discovered an article from last Australia Day, when the Prime Minister respectfully refused the Australian of the Year, Mick Dodson’s, request to rethink January 26th.  I think the response to this was very sensible – no-one was surprised, as there is a huge weight of tradition behind it, but many people asked for a long and thoughtful conversation on what it means to celebrate Australia Day and when we should do it.  I agree that it cannot be a quick change, it is too important for that, but this is the beginning of my contribution to the discussion.  I hope that it will be ongoing and that reasoned and gentle resistance will eventually result in both a date and a sense of mature nationhood that all Australians can celebrate.  Let NSW celebrate the 26th of January in the same style as Foundation Day (WA), Territory Day (NT!) and the others, and let Australia have a new day important to us all.

Ideally I would like to celebrate Federation Day, for the day we became one nation, but I can see that the 1st of January is going to be a non-starter!  So here are my other suggestions.  I have purposely excluded Sorry Day, I feel this is extremely important but hardly a day of celebration and shouldn’t be a holiday.

  • While Australia officially became a federation on January 1st, our first parliament opened on May 9th 1901, so one candidate is Parliament Day, to celebrate the beginning of our government as one democratic nation.
  • The 1967 constitutional referendum did not, in fact, grant Aboriginal people citizenship, but it was an extremely significant event for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.  Aboriginal people successfully asserted themselves and non-Aboriginal people acknowledged their rights, at least symbolically.  So the 27th of May could become Referendum Day, a day to include all Australians.
  • Perhaps it’s a trifle ambitious to want two days, but it would be nice to acknowledge two of our strengths – free and open government, and working to become a united, fair nation.  Since two dates in May are a bit close together, my last suggestion is the day on which the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals) Act, 1967 was proclaimed, the 10th of August.  This is the legislation made possible by the referendum; it was supported by both parties and passed all three reading for both houses in only one day.  So for me it represents the best our parliamentary system can be, working together carrying out the will of the people for the good of all Australians.

I hope you agree with me that Australia is a wonderful place to live.  I hope that, for you, there are more positives even while we acknowledge the negatives.  And I hope that, whether you agree or disagree with me, we have the maturity as a nation to engage in a positive and respectful conversation about when and how to celebrate our nationhood.  And if you agree with me, I hope that we can eventually move beyond conversation to action, and effect real change we can all be proud of.

(I do actually have something planned for tomorrow, but I’ll be a little busy.  You’ll have to wait and see why!)

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