The reasons why the date for Australia Day are contentious will not go away.
Directions about dress code will not help, nor will sanctions on local shires who wish to hold citizenship ceremonies on another day. There is a more appropriate day. Change to this date will not only remove contentious division about how the 26th January might be celebrated, but the change will greatly assist necessary dialogue about the evolving character of Australia and Australians and of our place in the world.
The 26th January celebrates the success of one of Great Britain’s imperial ambitions. The arrival of Captain Arthur Philip and the first fleet was noteworthy. Of course it was. It is a date that should be remembered in the national calendar. But the date has very little to do with the founding of Australia the birth of a proud and independent nation state. For approximately 100 years after the arrival of the 1st fleet, the land that was to become the nation of Australia remained several disconnected colonies of Great Britain, some of them, of cours penal colonies. During this time the land was legally understood to be terra nullius and the actions of settlers and colonial troops cruelly mirroring this assumption.
It was the process of federating over several decades, culminating in the Commonwealth of Australia Act on the 5th July 1900 and its proclamation on the 1st January 1901, that Australia was born.
This process was not easy. Even today State identity is as significant if not more significant for many Australians than national identity. This is particularly so for residents of Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland.
Over the 100+ years since Federation, Australia and Australians have evolved, just as life on the planet has and will continue to evolve. The demise of the white Australia policy, the long overdue recognition of Australia’s indigenous people as full citizens and acknowledgment in law that terra nullius was wrong have been some of the more significant components of this evolution. There is still a long way to go, not least in ensuring that Australia’s first peoples not only have the right, but are able to grasp the same opportunity for health, education, employment and life expectancy as all other Australians.
The celebration of Australia Day could be moved to the 1st January or if this is considered too un-Australian, for it combines too many holidays in one bundle, then to 5th July.
The reason for making the change is two-fold. First it obviously removes conflict over what this day has meant and continues to mean for Australia’s first peoples. Their’s will always be a legitimate objection to the day, no matter what our political leaders might say. The concern cannot simply be dismissed as a ‘black arm-band’ view of history. It is a reality that 26th January marks humiliation for indigenous people from which recovery was, and is, painful
But equally important, the change would focus attention away from a moment of past history, with a mixture of positive and negative overtones, to a day which demands attention to the continuing process of Australia’s becoming.
There are many issues about Australia’s evolving character and identity that deserve attention and if the date were changed to celebrate federation, the day could become one of renewal, imagining, of expecting what we can be. Dare I say, it could become a day when the people of Australia demand their elected members engage in bi-partisan policy making.
Let me highlight some matters of our evolving identity:
Clearly our democratic processes need to be re-thought for they are not working. “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. The electoral process must become an expense to the tax payer so that politicians are once more accountable to the Australian people. For now, they are accountable to those who make political donations. Gifts to political parties from individuals, businesses, unions, multi-nationals and other financial entities must stop. Conscience votes should become the norm not the exception. It should not be possible for senators to be elected with a handful of primary votes. Parliament must become a place for genuine debate on policy, not a venue for grandstanding charades.
- The anachronism of the monarchy needs to be resolved.
- Australia’s place in the Asian region needs to be more independently asserted.
- Threats to Australian life must be reconsidered and re-calibrated. Looking at our expenditure it seems we consider a military threat to be our greatest danger, hence the billions being expended on submarines and other military hardware. We don’t really need David Attenborough to remind us that climate change is a greater threat. It is already costing us billions, a bill that will escalate in coming years.
- We need to have a people’s convention about the roles played by state and federal authorities. What was decided, by way of compromise to bring us all together in the 1900’s is not necessarily serving us well in the 21st Those in power will want to maintain the inefficiency and duplication of our present system. We need to move beyond this impasse into a more appropriate and dynamic form of federation now and into the future.
I am therefore a very strong contender for a change of date, not simply to avoid the contention that prevails over the 26th January but because we need a date which enables and encourages conversation about the evolving nature of Australia and Australians. It is no surprise that politicians will resist this change, maintaining the status quo is in their interest. But it is not in the best interest of Australia and its people.
George Browning was a former Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.