Rethinking Australia Day

Ho hum, Australia Day is hear again, and it's met with the same utter lack of interest. Rightfully so.

The central problem with Australia Day is marks the anniversary of an event that is so fundamentally contested that it fails as a day of unity. Marking as it does the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, its meaning resonates with only a niche segment of the population. The description of British colonisation as invasion is highly debatable, but the very fact that it is debatable detracts from the unifying forces of the date. Whether or not it was invasion is a moot point - the the truth remains that the question is hotly contested.

It is wrong to suggest that the problem is a lack of Australian patriotism. Misdirected as it may have been, the events at Cronulla last month demonstrate that Australians can indeed find great pride in celebrating their nationalism. Apathy in response to Australia Day is not merely a post-modern globalised response to the slow death of the nation state. The underlying patriotism is there: the challenge is chanelling it into a healthy celebration of Australian achievement. Blatantly, January 26 is not the right day.

Okay, smartarse, then when should it be?
In the long term, the right day to celebrate Australia Day ought to be the day we vote to become a republic, logically completing our movement toward independence.

Until then, there is a dearth of appropriate dates. Perhaps most desirable is one which commemorates Australian Federation - an event which is fundamentally accepted by all rather than hotly contested - rather than Australian history of indeterminant length.

January 1, 1901 was the first day of the Australian Federation, and so theoretically seems a logical choice as "Federation Day", a substitute for Australia Day. There is, however, the practical difficulty of overlapping public holidays, essentially depriving us all of one public holiday a year, and the fact that new year's day is hardly the right time for a patriotic celebrations, unless it exists to prolong the previous night's hangover.

As a substitute, then, I offer you 9 May. On that day in 1901, the Australian Parliament met for the first time. At present, the day is completely unremarkable and the anniversary largely ignored. It is, though, a significant date in the history of the Australian Federation.

With a date like this, Australian achievement can be celebrated in a unified spirit, without the gnawing of the conscience which greets many of us in celebrating Australia Day. True, an approach like this does paper over the cracks of honestly appraising Australian history. That debate ought to run its course, but the debate should be independent of the celebration of national identity that Australia Day should represent.


Anonymous said…
I have also long held the belief that January 26 is an inappropriate date for our national holiday.

I think most Australians take greater pride in Anzac Day (Although that is a date we share with New Zealand) than they do in Australia Day.

As your fellow Republican, I agree that the day we become a republic (something I believe is inevitable, even if it does take another 20 years) would be a good date to make our national holiday. However, given the lack of consensus over January 26, you can imagine the uproar from monarchists - already sore over losing a future referendum - if we then moved to make that date our national holiday.

As for the dates you suggested instead: you're right in saying that January 1 is unsuitable. May 9 is a good idea, and shows you've thought well outside the square, but aren't we meant to be spreading the public holidays throughout the year? May 9 comes only two weeks after Anzac Day, so I'm not sure it would work.

On another topic, do you really think we can call the events at Cronulla a display of "nationalism". Sure, many of the locals at Cronulla were waving the Australian flag proudly, but in doing so they were directing their anger at their fellow Australians, including people with dark skin who just happened to get in the way. I know you qualified your statement by saying it was misdirected, but I'd argue it probably wasn't nationalism at all - they may have thought it was, but it wasn't Australian nationalism anyway.

But that's a debate for another day...

Happy Australia Day,
Sammo said…
I'm busy May 9th (I promised my cousin we'd burn some flags together), buuttt according to my diary May 10th is free, does that work?
Anonymous said…
May 9th - Horrible idea.

F*ck history. We're little over 200 years old. We weren't discovered, we didn't fight for our independence (I'm NOT getting into a sematic arguement about whether or not we have it already or not), we were established.

F*ck politicans. Commemorate the first sitting of Parliament? In a country where 4% of the population are members of a poltical party?

F*ck the racists - some disturbing photos came out of Cronulla, among them the ultimate in un-Australian Behavior - people spilling their beer as they moved about in a crowd.

I saw a cartoon, I think it was in today's Fin Review, that had two people sitting on a picnic blanket, and one says to the other "What are we celebrating exactly", the other replies "Not working". That WORKS for me.

We're a sunburnt nation, a majority of who's people cling to the coastlines. We're defined by the summer. You just proposed moving Australia Day into Autum. Do you know what it'd be like hosting a BBQ in May in Canberra? I dread the concept.

Someone asked me yesterday what they were supposed to be doing to mark Australia Day. I gestured, with my tongs, to the lamb and steak on my BBQ, the setup in my back yard, and then waved away a fly with those same tongs. They then said that was all very well for me to be kept busy so, tending to the BBQ, preparing salads and icing the beer, but what were THEY to do. I pointed, again with my tongs, to the deck chair in which they sat, the Chardonnay in their hand, and the radio, playing Triple J's hottest 100 countdown.

Celebrate - for that's Australia Day to me.
Anonymous said…
The anniversary of a vote to become a republic will be a non-event for the main national day. It will be even less unifying than January the 26th.
Anonymous said…
White Europeans celebrating Australia day on the 26th is like seeing Jews dancing in the streets on Easter...commemorating the day they killed Christ.

Why celebrate a day which commemorates criminal behaviour (be it the deaths of native peoples or prophets) in the first place?

Couldn't we have a national 'Sorry' day where all the Europeans supply indigenous Australians with peace offerings while the Jews finally accept responsibility for massacring Christ.


Ehud Levi-Schlezinger Gimp
boy_fromOz said…
Spot on, Ari.

Celebrating Australia Day is like Americans celebrating Columbus Day.
No one calls the the Fourth of July 'invasion day'...

We ought to have a national day everyone can spend drinking beer together rather than arguing about colonisation. Well, we're halfway there.

You don't see US Presidents calling for revision of the highschool history curriculum in their Independence Day address.
Anonymous said…
Ehud, On your "sorry day" I will be certainly making burnt offerings of aboriginal flags to "indigenous" persons. Could be quite fun.

Australia Day does NOT celebrate any criminal behaviour. Perhaps your eyesight is starting to glaze over? Time to change hands maybe?
Dan said…
To John Lee

At the risk of seeming pedantic I want to say that Australia Day is nothing like your 'Columbus Day' and more like Thanksgiving in the US. They both mark the arrival of a permantent settlement (mind you there is a big difference between free settlers and convicts!). Still you have got me thinking - do we have a 'Cook Day' for the alleged 'discoverer' of Australia? Mothy will be happy with a day that everyone can cook on...


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