FRANCESCA BEDDIE. What do we mean by Australia Day?

Jan 26, 2018

All the talk about Australia Day – what it symbolises, for whom and when we should celebrate – prompted me to delve into the history of the date, which has long been contentious. Before we lock in the date, we need to decide what we want our national day to commemorate.  

Ebony Bennett, Deputy Director of the Australia Institute, observed when launching the institute’s December 2017 poll on Australia Day:

The national conversation about Australia Day is an opportunity for all of us to learn about and reflect on Australia’s history, especially the more than fifty thousand years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, and to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be in the future.

One of my own conversations got me thinking about the migrant experience of Australia Day. The friend I was talking to is attached to 26 January. It reminds her of the ceremony she participated in to become Australian. Born in Ireland but brought up here, she only contemplated becoming an Australian citizen once the requirement to pledge allegiance to the British monarch was removed from the citizenship act. That was in 1993.

Jacinta Price, an Indigenous leader who supports keeping 26 January as Australia Day, observes that 26 January 1949 marked the beginning of the Nationality and Citizenship Act (1948), which created an Australian citizenship and the conditions by which it could be acquired. (Indigenous people were implicitly included in the act in the category of ‘natural-born’ Australians.) Speaking about the bill, the Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell described its intended effect:

It will symbolise not only our own pride in Australia, but also our willingness to offer a share in our future to the new Australians we are seeking in such vast numbers…My aim, and that of the Government, is to make the word, ‘Australian’ mean all that it truly stands for to every member of our community. We shall try to teach the children that they are fortunate to be British, and even more fortunate to be Australian.

Severing the colonial ties took many more decades:

The term ‘Australian nationality’ had no official recognition or meaning until the [Nationality and Citizenship] Act was amended in 1969 and renamed the Citizenship Act. This followed a growing sense of Australian nationalism and the declining importance for Australians of the British Empire. In 1973 the Act was renamed the Australian Citizenship Act. It was not until 1984 that Australian citizens ceased to be British subjects. (National Archives of Australia)

The debate about Australia Day’s date is not new. Humphrey McQueen’s 2017 survey of its history is useful, although it does not seem his argument that the day is about class warfare as well as race relations has been widely taken up.

One comment on his article did suggest Australia Day should also have something to do with the nation’s sovereignty:

A new date for Australia Day? The Indians will be pleased to have 26 January to themselves. No other country appears to have 23 August. But it is right in the middle of 3rd term and HSC preparation time. Good for a skiing weekend for those who can still afford one. It still commemorates British colonialism, however, so what’s the point? I propose that we change the date when we become a republic and call it Independence Day or Diversity Day. Until then, we are only perpetuating the status quo. (Alison Broinowski)

So if we change the date, do we wait till we become a republic? We would then have a free holiday in the calendar: the Queen’s Birthday weekend in June. (See here for an explanation as to why the holiday is in June, even though the Queen was born on 21 April.)

Or should we look at the plethora of other dates that already have significance? The ACT Government has introduced a new holiday, Reconciliation Day to take place on the first Monday on or after 27 May each year. That is the anniversary of the 1967 referendum in which 90.77 per cent of voters (including Aboriginal Australians) said yes to removing the words from section 51 (xxvi) and the whole of section 127 from the Australian Constitution that were seen as discriminating against Indigenous Australians. Some suggest 27 May would make a better Australia Day.

I am not so sure. The national day must also take account of non-indigenous Australia’s heritage. While considering this point, I discovered we have an Australian Citizenship Day on 17 September. The Department of Home Affairs explains that this day was launched in 2001 to increase community awareness of Australian citizenship. Could this become our national day?

Before we can answer any of these questions, we have to get clear in our minds what a national day represents and what it aims to do. Promoting reconciliation, celebrating diversity and avoiding jingoism would be good goals.

The Australia Institute poll reveals a great deal of ignorance about the nation’s history but a clear preference (35 per cent) for celebrating when we became an independent country. It is a matter of debate when that was, is or will be. For many Indigenous people 26 January represents the loss of sovereignty. For most others, the continent’s progression from a set of colonies to an independent nation is a poorly understood story. The single event of Arthur Phillip setting foot on Sydney Cove in 1788 can only become significant if it is placed in a context of Indigenous, migrant, colonial and post-colonial experience.

For example, Federation on 1 January 1901 was only the beginning of Australia’s independence from Britain. It was not until 9 October 1942, when it was clear the mother country could not defend its Antipodean dominions, that Australia ratified the Statue of Westminster, thereby legislating the fact of Australia’s independence as a self-governing dominion of Britain. And only in 1986, when the Australia Act was passed, did Australian law finally become independent of British parliaments and courts. This part of the story offers other possible dates for Australia Day: 9 October (the day the Statue of Westminster was ratified) or 3 March (when the Australia Act came into effect). However, as the Museum of Australian Democracy observes:

Although this [Commonwealth of Australia] Act defines Australia as a ‘sovereign, independent and federal nation’, and the Australia Acts [passed also by each of the states] are often described as completing the process of constitutional development begun with the Federation movement, Australia still retains the Queen as head of state.

Australia Day is, the National Australia Day Council declares, ‘for all Australians, no matter where our personal stories began’. Delve into what that means and things get complicated. Historians can help shape the conversation about our national day by explaining that complexity, especially when they bring life and colour to the legal intricacies that have moulded Australia.

Francesca Beddie is a former diplomat, who has organised many an Australia Day reception overseas. She is the editor of the Professional Historians Association NSW and ACT blog, where this article first appeared.

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