MARILYN LAKE. Change the date to 1 January

I’m with Jeff Kennett. I never thought I could say that, but I agree with him that Australia Day should be moved to 1 January – to commemorate the beginning of the Commonwealth of Australia, a new progressive nation, whose very name signified the ideals of collective commitment and communal wealth and a repudiation of old world aristocracies and inequalities. We didn’t thereby become a republic, but the name, voted on by constitutional delegates in the 1890s had a distinctively ‘republican ring’ as a number of disgruntled conservative constitutional delegates noted.  

The new nation in the south west Pacific forged a distinctive progressive democracy. It became a beacon to democrats around the globe, who travelled from Europe and the United States in large numbers to see its ‘experiment stations’ for themselves. Victor S Clark sent by the US Labor Bureau in 1903 and 1904 declared that Australia was one of ‘the most interesting legislative experiment stations in the world … they experiment so actively because their political institutions are extremely democratic’. Another visitor, the journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd commented that Australian democracy was ‘so successful and progressive that Americans . . . could make a study of it and reap an advantage’.

Australian nation-builders included men and women such as Alfred Deakin and HB Higgins, Catherine Spence and Vida Goldstein, who were themselves invited to travel abroad to tell Australia’s distinctive story to the world. Interestingly the progressive reformers were mostly Victorians. Their generation built on earlier democratic achievements such as manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, free, compulsory and secular education, payment to members of parliament, land taxes and public ownership of railways and other vital infrastructure.

They added new reforms: womanhood suffrage, the first children’s court, motherhood allowances and pensions, a legal minimum wage defined as a ‘living wage’, old age and invalid pensions. Australian women’s achievement of the right to vote and stand for election across the new Commonwealth of Australia, in 1902, was hailed by American admirers as ‘the greatest victory ever won for women,’ an ‘object lesson’ that would surely ‘help the cause of human liberty throughout the earth.’

Theirs was a bold vision of equal opportunity and collective wealth secured through state initiative and paid for from general revenue. As Catherine Spence told an audience in Chicago payments to the poor, to the aged and invalid, to working mothers were citizens’ rights.

Though initially an imperial extension of Britain, the new Commonwealth of Australia created in 1901, and its novel institutions, represented an explicit repudiation of the economic and social order of Britain itself, a rejection of the class inequalities and aristocratic hierarchies that marked the Mother Country. Not until after World War 1 were manhood and womanhood suffrage extended to the working class in Britain. In that country, men were forced to fight in the great war and sacrifice their lives while still denied a vote. In Australia, by contrast, enfranchised men and women voted to defeat conscription – twice.

The commemoration of January 26 as Australia Day is completely wrong-headed. It is offensive to Indigenous Australians as it symbolizes their brutal dispossession and the destruction of their culture and community. It gives pride of place to the British empire, rather than recognize the distinctive Australian democratic achievement inaugurated on 1 January 1901. And it marks a local Sydney event – which was until recently how it was commemorated – rather than the birth of the new Commonwealth of Australia.

Rather than commemorating history, the naming of January 26 as ‘Australia Day’ is in fact profoundly anti-historical. It denies and disavows history.

It is also extremely ironic that conservative persistence with this wrong-headedness only serves to marginalize actual Australian history and ensures that the only historical event known to most Australians is the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in 1788.

Marilyn Lake is Professorial Fellow in History, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne. Her most recent book ‘Progressive New World ;  How Settler Colonialism and Trans Pacific Exchange Shaped American Reform is published by Harvard University Press this month


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9 Responses to MARILYN LAKE. Change the date to 1 January

  1. Richard Ure says:

    1st January is something we decided for ourselves. In a sense, 26th January 1788 was imposed on people who, on the whole, did not want to be involved either the convicts and guards or those here already. 26th January will always be the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet. The question is what should we reflect on each year on that day? Perhaps the folk at Juice Media have an answer Some have suggested the day we become a republic will be more appropriate and would take the heat out of the issue and give us all something to be happy about.

    With 20 January being the anniversary of the convening of the Wannsee conference, Germany has more to be ashamed of, but at least their public broadcaster recalls the day and a Holocaust survivor is invited to address the Bundestag. Meanwhile, our prime minister almost treats debate on the issue as an act of treason much less an opportunity to acknowledge the distress it causes some.

  2. Ted Egan says:

    I January 1901 was the date on which the Australian Parliament decreed that “Aboriginal natives of Australia shall not be counted”. They were considered to be a sub-species

  3. Nicholas Whitlam says:

    There are at least two elements to the issue: the need to abandon 26 January because indigenous Australians rightly find it offensive and insensitive and, less importantly, the fact that we probably shouldn’t create yet another public holiday. The solution seems simple: 1 January for Australia Day and a mid-summer holiday on the last Monday in January in lieu of 26 January; such a mid-summer holiday could be designated First Nations Day.

    • Dinah Kimbell says:

      Perhaps we could relocate the odd ‘Queens Birthday’ long weekend in June to May around the 9th which was the first day that the Australian Parliament met in 1901. No extra holiday and a bit more relevant to contemporary Australia.

  4. Laurie Mills says:

    Facts, facts facts. Let the truth prevail.

    The Commonwealth of Australia was created by an act of the British Parliament enacted on the stoke of midnight, 1 January 1901.

    Before that there were, and still are, Sovereign Australian States.

    I’m an OAF – Old Adelaide Families – and my lot first arrived in South Australia on 18 January 1838 to a new colony founded 28 December 1836:

    You can’t convince me that a bunch of NSW rum guzzlers and convicts arriving on 26 January 1788 has any relevance to the founding of the Sovereign and proud State of South Australia.

    Let’s celebrate the actual day these Sovereign States ceded some – but not all – powers to form the Commonwealth of Australia: 1 January 1901.

    That the First Nations People were first invaded on 26 January 1788 makes it important to recognize the reality of the Frontier Wars and avoid opening old wounds with false celebrations:

    Let’s call 26 January ‘NSW Day’ and celebrate that day in that State alone.

  5. Tony Calladine says:

    500 independent nations, 700 languages with 66,000 years of cultural history, each nation with its own administration, teaching, a form of government and law.
    This should be taught as the ‘truth’ to our children, in primary and secondary school. Then in about 25 years, the groundswell of change will take place. Today’s children will be tomorrows change agents. Then and only then will 500 nations come together and right a historical wrong.

  6. Jennifer Anne Herrick says:

    Excellent article with a range of interesting facts. Thanks Marilyn.

  7. David Arthur says:

    I couldn’t disagree than with Marilyn Lake’s piece. It seemed to me she was desperately searching for an alternate date onto which to hang an Australia Day motif.
    Sorry Marilyn, it all started on 26 January 1788 and other dates are insignificant.
    On that day we began the nation of Australia. I am immensely proud of what we the people from all ethnic origins have created since that time.

  8. Alan Nosworthy says:

    A number of impressive achievements for a new nation to be proud of, but I believe that there is a fly in the soup.
    The immigration restriction act, better known as the white australia policy was some of if not the first legislation passed.
    As a consequence of this indigenous Australians co opted to assist in the boer war were denied entrance to their own country.
    If true this would render this date equally unacceptable.

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