March 21 has been celebrated by Australia as Harmony Day since 1999. No other country does this. Instead, starting in 1979, every other nation observes that day as the ‘UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’.
Our aberrant practice attracts international derision, a recent example being the ‘Australian Newsletter’ in the New York Times of March 19, 2021, in which reporter Yan Zhuang highlighted our curious custom in an article headlined ‘The Strange History of Harmony Day and Australia’s Racism Discussion’. “For some”, he wrote, “The best way to tackle racism is to not mention it and instead use “more encouraging words.”
Zhuang is uncannily accurate in concluding that the underlying reason for choosing ‘Harmony’ was that it sounded ‘more encouraging’ than any phrase highlighting ‘racism’ even one calling for its elimination. Unfortunately the world is very far from eliminating racism, and Australia is among the biggest laggards on this journey. The focus on Harmony, with all its which has made the day one that is full of feel-good celebrations of the wonderful diversity of language, culture, dance, songs, dress and food, unfortunately ignores the elephant in the room, Racism!
Choosing an ‘encouraging’ name was unquestionably what drove Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, whose was very keen on placating John Howard, who notoriously struggled with even using the ‘R’ word, notoriously dismissing the reality that it was the cause of the Cronulla riots, saying, “I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country”. Howard preferred to ‘accentuate the positive’ even if this meant ‘eliminating (effectively, denying) the negative’. Harmony Day pandered to his denialism perfectly.
Strangely, this decision wasn’t endorsed by the National Multicultural Advisory Council, which was appointed by the Minister and which I was honoured to chair. Our report, ‘Australian Multiculturalism for a New Century: Towards Inclusiveness’, which the PM launched only a month later, doesn’t mention, Harmony Day! When I asked Ruddock why we downplayed the UN observance, he responded with words to the effect that “We focus on both Harmony and the Elimination of Racism”! My discomfort with this equivocation was among several disagreements I had with Howard and Ruddock, which culminated in my resignation in January 2002 as Chair of both the Multicultural and Business (Migration) Advisory Councils.
Denial whitewashes our historic and ongoing racism, our Original Sin, which began with the invasion of January 26, 1788 and continues to stain our individual and collective souls. It is at the root of our Government’s disgraceful response to the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, the heartfelt and magnanimous plea by our Sovereign First Nations for ‘Voice Treaty Truth’ through a Makaratta dialogue.
Also, while we have discarded our other racist heritage, the ‘White Australia Policy’, we still apply it to Asylum Seekers. Indigenous leader Lowitja O’Donoghue had them in mind when she asked in 2003, “How is it that the nation’s First Peoples and its last peoples should suffer similar indignity?” Nothing has changed!
We must also take an honest look at the racism and xenophobia we have towards our fellow migrants who are ‘different’. Yes, Australian Multiculturalism has been an amazing success and the transformation of White Australia to Multicultural Australia in less than 50 years rightly makes us collectively proud. But, again, we migrants are not free from prejudice towards others of migrant stock, but from a different race, ethnic or linguistic group, religion or national origin from us. We have a fair share of xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and colour prejudice towards non-Whites and Whites, which erodes national harmony.
Honesty demands acknowledgement that racism isn’t restricted to Australians of British and Irish stock. Those of us originating elsewhere should ask ourselves if we tend to be overly critical of our majority community and too readily brand it racist. We need to remind ourselves how soon and how well, our host communities have accepted the massive change in Australia’s multicultural mix. Credit for this must largely be given to both Indigenous Australians and to those of British/Irish heritage.
Yes, we newcomers have put in the hard yards and deserve credit for our achievements, which have resulted in numerous first and second generation migrants now holding positions at or near the top of the ladder, as employees or entrepreneurs, in public and private service and in virtually every profession, whether academia, sport, medicine, the law, the media and even politics. But we must acknowledge and admire the good grace and good humour with which ‘dinky-di’ Aussies have responded to our phenomenal success and the radical change, both positive and negative, they have had to adapt to. The record number of mixed marriages is also tribute to their (and our) collective intercultural comfort.
It would pay us to imagine how our countries of origin might have reacted with anything approaching the racial and cultural diversification in Australia. How would my country of origin, India, itself a highly diverse and largely peaceful nation, have reacted if a similar percentage of racially different migrants, e.g. Europeans, Africans, East Asians – literally a hundred million or more – arrived there in just 50 years. An honest answer should help us acknowledge and admire the good grace and good humour with which ‘dinky-di’ Aussies have responded to such radical change.
I do not suggest that ‘Harmony Day’ be discontinued. It rightly celebrates the success of Australian Multiculturalism. We just need to move it well away from March 21, when we focus totally on the Elimination of Racism. Finding an alternative should not be difficult. We could choose from several celebratory days in the United Nations calendar, including:
- 21 May: World Day for Cultural Diversity
- July 30: International Day of Friendship
- December 18: International Migrants Day. This date could be tweaked to the last day of the school year, a wonderful celebratory note ahead of the holiday season!
Alternatively, as Harmony Day is our own creation, we could choose our own date, one that the business and school calendar can comfortably accommodate.