Another Australia Day; another angry national debate! Little has changed, then, since last year. The partisans of both persuasions have returned to their old trenches. The rhetorical exchanges are much as they were twelve months ago.
Public opinion appears to be much as it was as well. The most interesting poll, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, returned a similar result to what had been found last year. A large majority of Australians,85% in fact, think it is important to have a national day of celebration. But 56% don’t mind when the day occurs. More challenging for the January 26 partisans is that only 38% knew why that particular day had been selected in the first place and a little less than half knew that it had anything at all to do with the First Fleet. Even more to the point when respondents were asked to nominate what they thought would be the best time for the national celebration 70% preferred a day not associated with the First Fleet. Just under half of those surveyed thought the day should not be an occasion that was hurtful to Aboriginal people while 36% disagreed.
What are we to make of this? Clearly there is complete confusion of the day with the date. Australians want a day of celebration; they aren’t committed to the current date. The defenders of the status quo conflate the two in many cases consciously. This allows them to accuse their opponents with being un-Australian, with being divisive, destructive and poisoned by political correctness. It’s all good knock-about stuff but it is hard to take it seriously. But it is interesting to speculate why conservative Australians cling with such determination to the 26th. Is it just inertia? Is it inability to change?
After all the day itself is less important than the 20th of January when the whole fleet had arrived or the 7th of February when Eastern Australia was formally annexed. And is there any serious consideration with what happened in those first two and a half weeks? The great problem is not that the British arrival presaged the catastrophe that was to envelop the first nations over the next century. It’s what Britain did then. On February 7th sovereignty was asserted over half the continent with no thought of a treaty. But even more exceptional was the claim to all the property in an instant became Crown land. It was an egregious act on an heroic scale scarcely matched any- where in modern history. It pre-determined the nature of the great tragedy to come.It was the birth stain which could never be erased.
For a long time Australians comforted themselves with the illusion that this was predictable and understandable. This ceased to provide an intellectual and moral sanctuary once the High Court handed down the Mabo Judgement in 1992. So what are our conservative countrymen thinking about? How is it possible to square the British action in1788 with their historic veneration for the rule of law? Do they go along with massive expropriation of private property without reparation? They are awkward positions which seem to be at odds with the central tenants of conservative thinking.
Rejection of the date and not the day is, then, not purely an issue for the first nations. It matters to all of us. Why does anyone want to celebrate a moment of gigantic injustice? One can quite fairly conclude that the proponents of 26/1 don’t really consider that indigenous Australians are our country men and women and that mentally and emotionally they are still umbilically attached to the old Empire.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who has focused on frontier conflict between indigenous people and European settlers, and has written many books on that subject. His latest book is ‘Unnecessary Wars’.