I’m among many who’ve been reflecting on what Australia Day means. The movement to #changethedate has shifted gear to something approaching mainstream. I’ve considered it from many perspectives, and I’m for changing the date.
The 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame is quoted as saying “It costs us nothing.” Grace is a wonderful choice for Australian of the Year, and I support her principle, but it should cost us something, because cost is the exchange for something of value. There is real value in changing the date, so what will that cost?
Australia started officially recognising Australia Day in 1994, a mere 26 years ago. It has no long- fought claim on being our National Day. History notes it as the day of the arrival of the First Fleet of eleven convict hulks and the settlement of the penal colony of New South Wales in the name of the British Empire.
Conservatives seek to enshrine traditional values and ideas and oppose change or innovation. The argument to “ celebrate” Australia Day on 26 January focuses on the arrival of colonisers, the fate of the British subjects who were exiled as convicts, and the achievements of pioneers and explorers involved in nation-building.
This is part of our story, but that day also gave rise to Aboriginal people being dispossessed of their land without consent. Australia was conveniently thought of as “Terra Nullius”, No Mans Land, despite the fact that Aboriginal men, women and children were encountered soon after arriving.
Since then, Aboriginal people have been massacred, been driven off cliffs to their death, had their water sources poisoned, had their children forcibly removed from their care never to be seen again, been denied the right to vote, had sacred sites destroyed, and have been killed in custody in unacceptable numbers through police brutality. If they dared fight back, they were called savages.
233 years on from the First Fleet arriving, and 13 years from the Australian Government’s National Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples whose lives were ruined by past government policies of forced child removal and Indigenous assimilation, it is time to incorporate this true, awful history into our recognition of a National Day.
Changing the date will perhaps cost a bit of money in administrative amendments, legal fees and marketing communications expenses, but little else. We can still commemorate the achievements of pioneers, the development of a nation and the marking of a historical event, but a mature nation must openly condemn and mourn the devastating impact this day has had on Indigenous Australians. Not doing so continues to arrest our development as a mature country, and be a nation unafraid to acknowledge our mistakes and strive to improve.
There’s a powerful reason to change the date, and there is nothing to fear. Changing the date gives us an opportunity to reimagine and renew our aspirations as a nation. We have the mechanisms to choose a new date: a Referendum or a Plebiscite. If the democratic process of asking the people to decide can’t be trusted, what can? Make it mandatory for every Australian to express their choice on whether to change the date.
Australia, for all its outrageous fortune, does not seem to know where it’s going: on climate policy, on trade, on international relations, on the economy, on nationhood. Prime Minister Scott Morrisson’s vacuous platitude about ” having a go means getting a go” is just nonsense, lacking any form of policy ambition or galvanising rhetoric. They are lazy, weak words, signifying nothing.
Sometimes you need to change your path to find your way. A referendum on how and when we celebrate Australia Day will cost us little, and improve us immeasurably as a nation.
Whether the date changes or not, we need to be mature, sensitive and inclusive about how and what we celebrate and commemorate as a National Day.
Australia Day would become meaningful and fulfilling if we simultaneously acknowledged historical events, commemorated achievements, condemned the dispossession, honoured indigenous Australians as the first people and celebrated our aspirations to be inclusive, fair, innovative, charitable and resilient. We need to become genuinely reconciled with our history to create the future we aspire to.
There is no compelling reason to continue to “celebrate” Australia Day on 26 January while ignoring the injustice it symbolises. Let us vote to decide to change the date.
(thanks for the beautiful artwork Paul McNeil)