MUNGO MacCALLUM. Captain Goodvibes Turnbull and political correctness.

So even if we ignore the bunyip in the room – the invasion, the stealing of the land and the children, the destruction of the culture, the systematic trampling of the many nations which once made up the continent – there are copious reasons to question whether our national festival of nationalism and booze is, to use one of Turnbull’s favourite words, appropriate.  

Richard di Natale is wrong. Changing the date of Australia Day should not and will not be the top issue of 2018.

But Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are equally wrong: it cannot be dismissed as a non-issue either. It may well be a low priority among all the numerous crises, genuine and confected, that bedevil the commonwealth; most Australians, including many indigenous Australians, have more important things to think about.

But every time our national holiday comes around there is more controversy, more division. As the conservative Ian Macfarlane admitted last week, he did not feel comfortable being told to rejoice in dispossession and massacres, and an increasing number are equally concerned that Australia Day will eventually have to be changed.

Few have arrived at a conclusion; there is still to be a major debate about how, when and just what, if any, alternative is to be worked out. But as Macfarlane points out, the problem will not go away and it cannot, as Turnbull might hope, be wished out of existence. That approach has not worked to remove Tony Abbott and it won’t work this week either.

Turnbull’s talking points, assiduously promoted by most in the coalition party room, is that Australia Day is a celebration of our indigenous heritage, our British foundation and our multicultural character.

Well that may be his ideal, but in fact it is nothing of the kind. The 230th anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip’s landing on January 26, 1788 celebrates nothing more or less than the implementation of a decision of the English parliament under a demonstrably insane monarch to dump its unwanted surplus convicts at an unwanted outpost at the other end of the earth. It had nothing to do with Australia; Australia did not exist for another 113 years.

It may have been a significant date as part of the British foundation, but hardly the most important one: Lieutenant James Cook had landed in the same harbour 18 years previously, and had presumed to declare the continent a possession of Great Britain (his orders included the proviso “with the consent of the natives,” but as became the practice for at least a couple of centuries, the natives were not consulted – as usual, they were expected to suck it up).

And if we are to be pedantic, he was not the first Englishman to “discover” the great southern land; that distinction, if it can be called such, belongs to the pirate William Dampier who dropped in on the west coast in 1688. To conflate the establishment of a convict colony with celebration of nation’s past, present and future is frankly delusional.

In his guise of Captain Goodvibes Turnbull may exhort the masses to wave flags and cheer patriotically as they chose between the beach and barbie on their day off; but the historians and sceptics will not be impressed, and they will certainly not be assuaged by the knee-jerk sneers that it is just another case of political correctness – that now all but meaningless phrase which has come to signify any views the elitist commentators of the right do not share, rather like Donald Trump’s ranting about fake news.

If political correctness can be defined, it must surely mean that clinging to a real or imagined past at all costs, the obstinate refusal to admit that the times have changed and opinions have moved on. Real political correctness is conservative, even reactionary.

But it appears to be the fallback position for those opposing change, perhaps because they realise that that there are actually no serious arguments in favour of the current date — other than the fact that change is favoured by the progressives, and must, by definition, be unAustralian.

An amusing example came from our Citizenship minister Alan Tudge, who seems to think that the main purpose of his portfolio is to defend January 26 as the permanent and sacrosanct moment that defines our country and its culture. Actually it was not even declared an anniversary at all until 1938, did not become official until 1946 and did not become a national holiday until 1994, but you can’t expect a junior minister to know very much history. Tudge is inventing a tradition, not upholding it.

However, Tudge says that it is a terrific day, and adds that some indigenous Australians have been awarded the title of Australian of the Year, for which he apparently imagined they should be pathetically grateful, perhaps harking back to the days when his forbears festooned compliant collaborators with shiny medallions and called them chiefs and even kings.

So even if we ignore the bunyip in the room – the invasion, the stealing of the land and the children, the destruction of the culture, the systematic trampling of the many nations which once made up the continent – there are copious reasons to question whether our national festival of nationalism and booze is, to use one of Turnbull’s favourite words, appropriate.

Many have urged that we should wait for the inauguration of a republic to make the switch, but given that Turnbull is prepared to procrastinate indefinitely to delay or frustrate that ambition, it may be more sensible to at least consider other possibilities – obviously January 1, when Australia actually came into being as a nation is awkward given that it is already a public holiday (where would we get the extra fireworks?) but perhaps July 9, when in 1900 Queen Victoria gave real assent to the constitution, or May 9, when the Australian parliament first sat on the following year, would make some sort of sense – certainly more than the setting up of a convict colony.

And there is another reason to abandon January 26: it is also India’s national day, when the population finally won the struggle for independence over Britain and became a proud and independent republic. Rather more salutary than the landing on that fatal shore.

The real news is that the latest polling shows that a clear majority of Australians don’t really care what the precise date should be, as long as there is a national holiday. So really, there is no sensible reason not to change the date – except that to do so would enrage, the ignoramuses, the bigots and the ranters of the right. And Malcolm Turnbull could never let that happen, could he?


Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.
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