GEORGE BROWNING. Change the date!

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.

  1. The anachronism of the monarchy needs to be resolved.
  2. Australia’s place in the Asian region needs to be more independently asserted.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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11 Responses to GEORGE BROWNING. Change the date!

  1. Michael Furtado says:

    +Browning makes his case with crystalline clarity;
    Whereas those who defend the status quo soak themselves –
    While drowning the rest of us –
    In egregious sentimentality.
    Yes; change that date!

  2. Kien Choong says:

    Why not appropriate Australia Day and make it a day to remember the wrongs done to indigenous Australians? In addition to the Australian of the Year and other awards, we could add a yearly award to the Australian that has done the most for reconciliation with indigenous Australians.

    We could still call it “Australia Day”, and add a tag line – e.g., “Australia Day – a day to remember the custodians of our land”. If 26 Jan was indeed the day that Old World settlers first arrived in Australia and encountered its custodians, it seems appropriate to recall that first encounter each 26 Jan, to give thanks for the custodians of Australia, and to regret the wrongs done to them by Old World settlers.

  3. Peter Johnstone says:

    This article plus many of the comments should serve as briefing notes for our political leaders, if only they were prepared to lead rather than be intimidated by the views of so many who do not know the real history of our nation extending well before white colonisation.

  4. Michael Rogers says:

    “The anachronism of the monarchy needs to be resolved.”
    If only the ‘Real Republicans’ had had the gumption to call Nick Minchin’s bluff in 1999 and not voted to in effect ‘retain the monarchy’!

    End of the monarchy could provide the new date for a ‘National Day’, as most ‘national days’ have something with ‘independence’ or a claim of ‘sovereignty’ (Jan. 26 is India’s ‘Republic Day’.) Until then the nearest date in the current timeline of an independent ‘Oz’ is December 4th. (A ‘Koala Stamp’ for any who can identify, the significance of that date.)

  5. Michael Rogers says:

    “It should not be possible for senators to be elected with a handful of primary votes.”
    So what would you do with votes surplus to a ‘quota’?

    Note too that in the original way of electing the Senate on just Primary votes resulted in 1943 for instance, the ALP winning 100% of seats in the Senate with 55.0% of the total vote for Senate candidates.

  6. Michael Rogers says:

    “Gifts to political parties from individuals, businesses, unions, multi-nationals and other financial entities must stop.”

    That and a prohibition on paid political advertising.
    The Electoral Commission (along with its current re-reimbursements) could provide a ‘web-hub’ and free space for candidate to list their policies and criticism of their opponents policies.

  7. Michael Rogers says:

    “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.”

    Sort of.
    A more accurate perception of what occurred on Jan 1 1901 was the inception of a glorified customs union of six self-governing British settler colonies under the Crown of the United Kingdom. (Something that the Colonial Office in London had first proposed to reluctant colonists in the late 1840s.)

    As a new ‘nation’, ‘Australia’ was quite peculiar:

    Its ‘constitution’ besides being the Act of the parliament of another country, could still be amended by that parliament. For instance in 1940, Prime Minister Menzies requested that the Parliament at Westminster amend the ‘Australian Constitution’ to remove the three-year limit on Federal Parliaments. This was agreed to on the provision that all parties in the Australian Parliament agreed. (The Labor and Country parties did not agree and the matter was dropped.)

    As well the laws of its constuitent states could be overruled by the parliament of another country.

    Its highest court of appeal was in another country. (Privy Council in the U.K.)

    It had no ‘national’ official flag or anthem of its own.

    The representative of the monarch (Governor General) was appointed on the recommendation of the Colonial Office and was also expected to represent the interests of the government in the U.K.

    Its highest court of appeal was in another country. (Privy Council in the U.K.)

    It had no independent diplomatic representation in other countries.

    Its inhabitants were not ‘Australian citizens’ but rather ‘British subjects’.

    • John Mordike says:

      Yes, Michael, the Governor General was “expected to represent the interests of the government in the U.K.”. Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary at the time when Australia’s political leaders first presented their draft Constitution for British approval, succeeded in empowering the Governor General to be able to dismiss an Australian government by quietly initiating action to have the so-called Reserve Powers inserted in the Constitution. Chamberlain wanted a British government, acting through the office of the Governor General, to have the power dismiss an Australian government if it took action contrary to British interests. This imperial relic in the Australian Constitution was used by John Kerr in 1975 to dismiss the Whitlam government. Australian historian Brian de Garis first published the history of this issue many years ago.

  8. Michael Rogers says:

    This editorial from the ‘ The Australian Women’s Weekly’ Sat 30 Jan 1937 may add to background knowledge of ‘Australia Day’ – especially take note of the conclusion that the date celebrates: “the birth of a new white nation in the Southern Seas”.

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