Australia Day rolls around again this week. Its observance has once again become an issue, with many councils, individuals and The Greens calling for its date to be changed, or at least the observance of a national day for Australia to be moved to another date.
The issue has become totemic of Australia’s continuing culture wars. Although essentially trivial, it has been seized upon by ideologues on both sides of Australia’s cultural divide as a matter worth fighting over. It is as good an example as you will find of a symbolic issue that has assumed a much greater importance than it should.
In 2017 the council of the City of Yarra said it would no longer hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, and cease referring to it by that name. Many other councils have since done the same, drawing the ire of many conservatives. Since then there have been many proposals to change the date.
Any change would hardly be an affront to tradition. The flat earthers who say it has always been thus need to learn some history. It was first celebrated 20 years after the founding of New South Wales in 1808, as Foundation Day. Lachlan Macquarie made it a public holiday ten years later, and called it Anniversary Day.
It remained a NSW only event until the centenary in 1888, when all states except South Australia celebrated it, still as Anniversary Day. Australia came into being as a nation on 1 January 1901, when the six colonies became states of a federated nation, but New Years Day was already a holiday and a new national day was sought. It was not until 1935 that all states and territories adopted 26 January as Australia Day.
Even then, it was celebrated on the closest Monday, to ensure a long weekend. It is only since 1994 that the holiday has been taken on 26 January and the day consistently observed across the country. Hardly a long tradition.
It is even more recently that the day has been marked by excessive nationalism, of ignorant youths wearing the Australian flag as a cape. That has coincided with increasing indigenous awareness and unease in some quarters that it is a celebration of the dispossession of Aborigines of their land. Some started calling it Invasion Day.
It has become impossible to have a reasonable debate about the issue. It has become an ideological thing – your desire to keep it or change it has become a mark of your broader beliefs. There are many labels – Progressive versus Conservative, Right versus Left. It is symbolic of the age old political divide. Common sense has left the building.
We have now reached the height of absurdity, with former Prime Minister telling his shock jock mate Ray Hadley that the First Fleet was good for indigenous Australians, who should consider themselves jolly well lucky that those who survived the epidemics and massacres were introduced to the virtues of Western civilisation. And this:
“That easy-going stoicism, that laconic style that so characterises Australians, is typical of the spirit that pervades Indigenous Australia.” Yep, they’re a stoic lot, our native cousins.
The most sensible thing I have heard in the increasingly pointless debate has come from Western Australian Liberal MP Ken Wyatt, himself partly of indigenous descent.
“I think it is inevitable that we will become a republic,” he was reported as saying in Fairfax media. “And when we do, the day we become a republic should become Australia Day.”
He described British settlement as an “invasion that ended 60,000 years of unimpeded enjoyment of this continent,” and said that while he understands why some people are passionate about the issue, they should be patient.
Patience is a virtue lost to many in the current debate. Realism dictates that nothing will happen any time soon, and arguing the point has become counterproductive.
The date and meaning of Australia Day has now assumed a momentum of its own. It is unlikely to go away. In the meantime, more people should listen to Mr Wyatt.
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