Because 26th January is a painful day for most of Australia’s indigenous population, the nation’s first people, this is reason enough to change the date; but to what?
There is absolutely no need to argue for a national day which celebrates both what Australia has become and what its people dream of in a future yet to unfold. The question is not should there be an Australia Day, the question is when should it be held?
The Australia we know today is, as the Prime Minister frequently extols, the most successful multi-cultural nation on the planet. We are a nation that has wonderfully integrated diverse peoples for all over the world into a single, harmonious and peaceful civil society. We have done this by celebrating unity and diversity.
Being reminded of the first fleet adds very little to this extraordinary achievement and is not the primary focus of annual 26th January celebrations. Apart from the occasional re-enactment in Botany Bay or Sydney Cove, this is probably the least important aspect of the day. Australian Citizenship celebrations are important. Displays of diverse cultures and traditions that go to make up the colourful character of modern Australia are essential. Celebrations of indigenous history and tradition should take centre stage and enrich the lives of all Australians. A changed mindset is beginning to recognise that the culture of Australia’s first peoples is the longest, most enduring on the planet. Long after civilisations from which most of us have descended flourished and then faded, Australia’s first peoples have endured. There is so much to learn, celebrate and be proud of.
There was a time when I thought the logical thing to do was to make Anzac Day, Australia Day, because it sometimes feels it has become so, by default. But this would be a terrible mistake. Anzac Day celebrates one stream of Australian identity and history; it would be a great mistake to make military history our primary identity or somehow tie our values exclusively to the experience of war. The euphoric speeches of politicians on ANZAC day seem already to have made this mistake. .
So where should we go from here? There is one obvious day which in embryo celebrates what Australia has become. This is of course Federation Day. On January 1 1901 six British colonies federated to make the nation we call Australia. This achievement was hard fought. There was much that each colony had to forego, much more that each had to bring to the Federation, and much more again that each had to anticipate in the sharing of a common future. What could be a better symbol for Australia today?
All new migrants have to forego aspects of their lives in another place. Each new migrant has much to bring to this new place. And most importantly each new migrant has so much to embrace as a new Australian. As a migrant myself I know something of this journey. I have foregone ties and identities in the UK which I cherish and honour. I hope it is true that I have brought much to Australia. What I do know is that in Australia, in company with citizens from all over the world I have been immeasurably enriched, and am grateful. Being Australian is my primary identity, even in an Ashes series or at a Ruby World Cup!
I believe the analogy also holds true for Australia’s first peoples. First, they, more than any who have come in the last 200 years, have lost so much, not voluntarily, but by force. This fact needs to be in the forefront of the consciousness of all Australians because the consequence of the loss endures. But let us also dwell on the other parts of the analogy. The first peoples have the most to bring, if for no other reason than that their culture, song lines and connection with the land help all Australians to understand how living in harmony on this continent requires different levels of respect from life on any other continent. Also, the very long history of human life on this continent was the tale of many nations, tribes and languages living in relative harmony with one another. How did they do this? There is much to learn, but ‘welcome to country’, which is becoming a ubiquitous expression of ‘Australianness’ is a window into this reality.
Thirdly, Australian first peoples like the rest of us, have much to embrace in what Australia has now become. Opportunities exist for both individual professional advancement in Australia’s vibrant civil society and also for regaining, imagining afresh, core elements of indigenous culture in a 21st century setting. I understand one of the most encouraging current statistics is that there are now more first people youngsters in University than there are in gaol. It is grim to have to acknowledge that this is a significant advancement.
So, why not Federation Day? The loss of a public holiday, given New Year’s Day is already a holiday, can hardly be an adequate reason to stymie change. That it is New Year’s Day makes it a most obvious day. To start the year in this way would be brilliant. There is no reason why paper work and the administration required for official functions could not be prepared before the holiday season begins.
It is not right that we continue to celebrate a national day which excludes, for whatever reason, the full hearted engagement of Australia’s first people. What is more, January 26 did not establish a new nation even in embryo. January 26th was a foray by Britain for the purposes of new land and resources, but most particularly as a penal dumping ground.
January1 1901 heralded the beginning of a nation. This is a day worthy of honour, worthy of unity, worthy of diversity and most importantly worthy of the continuing unfolding of a dream for new life beyond restrictions, even hostilities associated with lands from which people came.
Recent polls indicate that Australians place high value on Australia Day but are not tied to a specific date. The self-righteousness inherent in many recent speeches from politicians making 26th January into a sacred cow are quite nauseating and out of step with grass roots Australia.
The debate does not need to be shut down; it needs to be opened up. Symbols speak to identity. Symbolism inherent in the 26th January speaks to an identity that does not serve modern Australia.