By choosing to stick with January 26 (1788) as Australia’s National Day, conservatives are celebrating a date that highlights the very worst of British imperialism – a ‘rule of law’ belonging to a tiny aristocratic oligarchy with a vicious criminal code defending private property through capital punishment and transportation.
Australia Day has come and gone again and still no resolution to recurring problems with the official choice of January 26th. Well-tried arguments re-emerge; old combatants re-engage. But several things are clear. The controversy will not go away. The movement to change the date is stronger than ever. Rallies all over the country are large, varied and passionate. Meanwhile, supporters of the status quo invariably conflate support for a national day with their fixation on the 26th ; on the date rather than the day.
The rally in Hobart in the gardens fronting Parliament House was larger than ever and more varied in social composition and demographics. Well over half the crowd, through a show of hands, indicated they were attending for the first time. Prominent politicians, trade union leaders, the Anglican bishop, and Hobart’s Lord Mayor were on the list of speakers along with Indigenous activists. A common theme was that Canberra was not hearing the eminently sound arguments.
The intellectual dissonance was highlighted when the rally got under way at noon. Two minutes of silence was disrupted by the sound of distant artillery fire as the official national salute boomed across the city. It was not the most thoughtful way to mark the occasion.
Similar artillery fire had echoed across the Derwent in February 1804 when Hobart’s ‘first fleet’ had arrived, and then again a few months later when the soldiers of the New South Wales Corp fired their cannon to ward off an attack by the warriors of the Oyster Bay nation who were threatening the small settlement at Risdon on the river’s eastern shore.
This year’s debate further exposed the oddity of the conservative cause, which would be particularly apparent to outsiders. For many countries that commemorate significant historical events, the date of independence from colonial rule is a key one. The clear message conveyed by Australia Day is that during two centuries of settlement nothing can match the significance of the arrival of a fleet of ships carrying 700 convicts cast out as human refuse.
Clearly, the motivation is to reaffirm our British heritage. That is not in itself unreasonable. But why choose 1788? Especially when the fleet’s arrival illustrated British imperialism at its very worst.
Meanwhile, the case for the prosecution overflows. The ‘rule of law’ that arrived with the fleet was the law of a tiny aristocratic oligarchy with a vicious criminal code defending private property with capital punishment and transportation. Britain was still deeply involved in the slave trade. The tragic decision to claim sovereignty and property over half a continent had no basis in either international or common law at the time.
It was a monstrous and unconscionable usurpation that predetermined the violence which was to run like a dark thread through Australian life for generations. The likely outcome was understood at the time. Jeremy Bentham observed that New South Wales had been annexed without any treaties with the First Nations. It was, he believed, an egregious fault that could never be remedied.
Clearly, the passions swirling around the national day reflect deeper currents of opinion. The nature of modern Australia is in question. How British are we? Do our traditions and institutions owe more to our colonial history than to Imperial oversight? Were they locally made or shipped in from the northern hemisphere? Many of our anglophile conservatives seem to have little knowledge and even less respect for locally developed ways of doing things.
Our inability to consummate the process of decolonisation is there for the world to see. Most countries wonder why Australia is still comfortable with a situation where the British queen remains our head of state. They must look on with bemusement when our patriots wrap themselves in the Australian flag when, in the words of the Flag Act of 1953, it is the British blue ensign; that is, the flag of a colony rather than an independent nation.
Even the constituent parts of the United Kingdom — Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and the Shetland Islands have their own distinctive flags.
The events dear to conservative Australia are telling. Alongside Australia Day we have our deep official engagement with the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage along the east coast in 1770, the elaborate celebration of which was cancelled at the last minute due to Covid.
And then there is Anzac Day commemorating Australia’s engagement in an Imperial campaign against an enemy that could never have presented a threat to the homeland.
These are all moments of Imperial, not national, history. At the same time, we still find it difficult to give full and official recognition to the warriors of the First Nations who died fighting for their kin, their customs and their country. We fail to see that they fell in what by any fair measure was our most important war fought in Australia about the ownership and control of land across great continental distances.
The most constant argument of defenders of January 26 is that it is a moment capable of bringing us all together. But our conservative countrymen cannot achieve that goal, joined as they are at one hip to Mother England and at the other to Uncle Sam. They cannot hold together their veneration for our British heritage with the acceptance of the profound moral culpability of the Imperial government in the deep tragedy of the destruction of Aboriginal society.
The decisive change we must look for is the realisation that the men and women of the First Nations and the convicts were both victims of British imperialism. The nature and intensity of their suffering differed but the convicts did not choose to be foot soldiers in an invading horde even when they were forced to march in time with the British-inspired conquest.
For their part, the free settlers and the growing population of locally born children had little capacity to influence the structure of the law or the shaping of policy that until the second half of the 19th century was determined in London and administered by Imperial officials.