An Australia Day worth celebrating – how might we do it?

Jan 29, 2023
Part of an inscription around a monument with the anchor of a ship, HMS Sirrus, which arrived in Sydney Harbour as part of the First Fleet on 26 January 1788.

As is now usual around Australia Day, commentators from all sides of the argument weigh in to suggest new dates on which we might celebrate the founding of the nation. Henry Reynolds, for instance, has made a case for not celebrating on 26 January and in response in these pages David Havyatt has wondered whether we need a national day at all. So questions are arising here: do we need an Australia Day and if so when should it be?

Clearly Australia Day stirs up the worst memories of the dispossession and violence suffered by First Nations at the hands of the colonial British empire. For that reason the day is intensely painful for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. But it is now also strangely useful in reminding non-Indigenous Australians of something they should be reminded of about the faults of our founding as a nation. For every year that the “change the date” argument goes on, more Australians are awakened to the fact that there is a colossal injustice in the Australian state – not just in its brutal establishment in the late 18th century but in its persistence in the 21st century as a monarchical state which no doubt has had and is still having a devastating effect on Indigenous Australians. As the years pass it is becoming more apparent that colonialism has been neither shuffled off nor atoned for in Australia and that this needs to be fixed properly and to the satisfaction of all parties. In other words, if we are to aspire to cohesion as a nation in the future it must be agreed by all that justice has finally been done in relation to the faults of our past.

It follows from this that if Australia is to aspire to having a day where we celebrate a nation that has moved past the faults of its founding and has settled on a way for First Nations to coexist peacefully with and within the multicultural nation formed by forced transportation and immigration, then we might need to worry less about the date and the name of the day and more about what we need to do to establish a day worth having – a day which brings all Australians together to affirm a nation of which they can all be justly proud and to which they will all always wish to belong.

David Havyatt has suggested that if we must have some sort of national day on 26 January then we should change its name and the purpose of the day. We should transform it into one of commemoration in the morning of the terrible consequences of the day for First Nations and then celebration in the evening of what was achieved afterwards. This would be a step towards a symbolic rapprochement. But we could aspire to something more. We could opt to establish a new, fully reconciled Australia – a nation reconciled with its past and peoples reconciled with each other in such a way as to ensure political equality and justice for all going forward. In short, we could aspire to a nation that has truly shuffled off the horrors of colonialism and the disadvantage it has entrenched for First Nations.

A model we can use to begin to build such an Australia has been suggested by First Nations themselves in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This has offered Australians an invitation to walk together to a better future and to do so by supporting an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution and by establishing a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history. These are essential institutions that we must build and invest in if we are to have any hope of the reconciliation and the level of justice necessary to ensure that any future “Australia Day” is more than a perfunctory, superficial gesture towards First Nations.

That said, if those vital new institutions are to have a firm foundation then it is time to recognise that Australia will need a new Constitution – one which establishes a safe path away from our colonial past and towards an independent, self-reliant, mature and strongly cohesive nation. This implies the need for a constitution that states what the 21st century Australian nation stands for, what its diverse people value, what rights they share as equals, what obligations their governments will have to them, and what we envisage as the necessary minimum capacity to design our preferred future – our willingly shared destiny – and determine our preferred path towards it.

No doubt many Australians sense the need for this new Constitution. Indeed, the call for a republic is an admission of the fact that something is wrong in the whole premise of the current Constitution itself. For a start, Australia’s Constitution still counts Australia as a “possession” of Queen Victoria, her heirs and successors. As such it represents Australia as something that is not our own and something which has no character at all other than as a dominion of a diminished empire. This is certainly not a constitution that contemplates a future where we are reconciled, much less a 21st century post-colonial, democratic state.

But if we could create a constitution which provides a space for that future – one that allows its people to express their desire for a cohesion that can only come from a mutual commitment to full reconciliation – then we might have an Australia that everyone would feel was worth celebrating. Such a constitution is possible if we make a space for the people of Australia themselves in it, effectively giving them a greater participatory role in their democracy and a greater chance to create the future we all want to share. The current Constitution provides no such space. The fact is that as soon as Australians have voted to select those who shall govern them, they have no further voice at all. A reading of the Constitution suggests that they may as well not exist after they have voted and they certainly have no power to express what governments should do for them. The Constitution simply is not built for them.

It is not impossible at all to create the sort of constitution necessary for the post-colonial nation we should hope to become and must become if there is to be a genuine reconciliation between First Nations, governments and the non-Indigenous people of Australia. It is not impossible to make the people of Australia the centre of their own constitution, as they should be. New studies are showing how this can be done. Anything can be achieved in law if the will is there.

As Australia walks on to an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution and then walks towards a decision one way or another about a republic, it might be observed that we would be more likely to cohere on the questions of both a republic and how we shall walk together with First Nations to a better future if we had a constitution that had been created by the people and for the people. An Australian people’s constitution is not yet on the agenda of any political party but it is the only foundation on which we can become reconciled and fairly share the task of building a better future for everyone.

A lasting resolution of the problem at the very heart of the nation – its failure to come to terms with the injustice of its founding – will require the people of Australia to be able to get together and stay together and perhaps most notably understand the values that hold them together because they are sincerely shared. They can’t do that with their current constitution. They can’t do it with the merely representative system of government that has been encoded in it. They need a democracy in which everyone can participate and which they can use to express their will for a better future.

So it is time to start calling for just such a democracy and for a new constitution that provides a space for participation by any citizen. An Australia Day worth having will be on whatever date we sign that new Constitution.

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