Holidays and symbols matter and demand independent review

Apr 11, 2021

John Howard’s refusal to say ‘Sorry’ on the grounds that he believed in practical rather than symbolic reconciliation actually highlighted the fact that the symbolism of the ‘S-Word’ was so important to him that he just couldn’t utter it. The Anglo in him had similar difficulty with the ‘M-word’; Multiculturalism.

That our national observances and symbols also matter to Australians generally is highlighted by the annual controversy on 26 January – should we be observing it as Australia Day, Invasion Day, Survival Day or just an excuse for a long weekend? Similar differences of opinion and sentiment also attach to other significant national Australian symbols, the flag and national anthem being the most obvious.

The underlying cause of these arguments is that most of our observances and symbols (hereafter referred to as ‘Symbols’) were chosen by the colonisers without the slightest acknowledgement of the diametrically different perspective of the colonised. They reflect a British viewpoint, which has never been shared by our Indigenous Sovereign Nations.

Even migrants from other countries, especially those that were formerly ruled by foreign powers, struggle with celebrating the day when colonisation began. The reality is that our nation has evolved, but our practices have not. They still largely reflect an old Australia, not the one increasingly defined by inclusive Australian Multiculturalism and desperately in need of National Reconciliation.

The main problem in the way of modernisation is that many Symbols are highly politicised and engender strongly opposing views. The only way to make them a unifying force is a root and branch review and ongoing oversight of them by a formal independent body.

The Council for the Order of Australia serves as an excellent model. It is located in the Governor General’s Office and supported by its own secretariat, quite separate from the Australian Honours and Symbols Section in the Parliamentary and Government Branch of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Its relative independence makes it a-political, a major reason why there is such a positive reaction across the community to the announcement of new Honours recipients. Abbot’s weird, highly political, award of knighthoods highlights what can happen when the Council is bypassed.

The Council’s website says it “has 19 members including representatives of each state and territory, public office holders (ex-officio) and community representatives. The community representatives on the Council are appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.”

The representation of all Governments, Federal, State and Territory, gives the Council broad-based political representation, while the significant number of distinguished community representatives (currently 7) provides an independent and diverse set of views from a cross-section of eminent Australians.

Because Honours are only awarded to those living at the time their nomination is received by the secretariat, the system also ensures that recipients reflect contemporary Australia and its continually changing mix of population in terms of country of origin, race, colour, language, religion or other distinguishing characteristics. A cursory look at each new Honours list shows that it is not disproportionately dominated by members of the majority community, but has a significant representation of first and second generation migrants. The fact that Honours are conferred twice a year effectively places the system in continuous review and enables a rapid reaction to demographic change.

Given the strong divisive nature of several of our most important Symbols, an independent root and branch review is well overdue. The Australian Parliament should immediately appoint a National Symbols Council and Secretariat located in the Governor General’s Office. The Council should also have broad-based political and community representation similar to the Australian Honours Council. However, its community members must include Indigenous and newer migrant community representatives.

As Symbols don’t have the same built-in capability to rapidly adapt to demographic change, the National Symbols Council will need to review both existing and potential Symbols routinely.

Initially, the dates of several of the current observances and some new ones require urgent consideration, including:

  • January 26. Clearly, observing this as our National Day or Australia Day is extremely offensive to Indigenous Australians. It could instead unite us by being renamed ‘Reconciliation Day’, an opportunity for collective reflection on the Invasion, Indigenous Survival and the plight of the hapless deportees.
  • May 27, the day of the 1967 Referendum and the 2017 Uluru Statement, an ideal option for Australia Day.
  • June 3, the day of the Mabo decision, a day that could celebrate our Indigenous Sovereign Nations. It could also be named ‘Treaty Day’.
  • March 21, currently celebrated as Harmony Day, must revert to the Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as designated by the UN, and observed by all other UN members. This will ensure that the elimination of racial discrimination receives the total focus it deserves, especially given our racist history and significant ongoing racism..
  • Harmony Day, which also deserves exclusive focus as the day we celebrate Australian Multiculturalism, needs to be moved from March 21. Potential candidates include 21 May, the World Day for Cultural Diversity; July 30, the International Day of Friendship, and December 18, International Migrants Day.

It is also timely to review our National symbols to consider if and how they could be made more unifying. The two that immediately come to mind are:

  1. The National Flag. The exclusive presence of the Union Jack is unquestionably divisive as it only represents British Australians, not Indigenous Australians or migrants from non-British countries. Perhaps we should follow South Africa and design our own rainbow flag, which includes the Union Jack, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags and a symbol representing other migrants. Alternatively, we could follow Canada and have a simple flag that clearly represents Australia.
  2. The National Anthem must have a verse in the Indigenous Language of the country in which it is performed, with words that reflect Indigenous sentiments. The current tune and English words could be retained, although the word ‘fair’ also means fair complexioned, not a good term given our former White Australia policy. An option is a national competition, with a few entries chosen to be voted on – much the way that ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was selected.

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