Sir – As we surface from another bunfight over Australia Day, without doubt the most divisive to date, it is perhaps a timely moment to pick over the battlefield for anything that may be useful for next year.
Some amongst us have argued for the retention of a date that celebrates the landing of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson in 1788, supported by political heavyweights including the nation’s Prime Minister, whilst many others have acknowledged that, to many of our Indigenous peoples, it remains a day of pain and sorrow, signifying the beginning of a process of dispossession.
The pivotal points remain the date, the 26th of January, and the issue: just what is it that we are celebrating?
Most other nations have a national day, generally commemorating a date upon which they were united or attained independence, including most of the nations that once made up the British Empire.
Canada, for example, celebrates its national day on the 1st of July, the date upon which its Constitution Act (1867) was legislated, uniting the three separate colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single, self-governing dominion within the British Empire, also referred to as the “date the nation was born”. The name “Canada Day” was formally adopted in October 1982.
An Australian equivalent would be the 1st of January, 1901, when the six separate colonies became states of the Commonwealth of Australia, under a new constitution, following the passing of legislation by the British Parliament permitting the six states to govern in their own right. This would be a logical Australia Day, were it not already a holiday, and we cannot have that, can we?
Italy’s national day is held on the 2nd of June, the date upon which the Italian population voted in 1946 to free itself of the reigning monarchy and declared itself a republic. The day is referred to as “Republic Day”, but also as the more direct “Liberation Day”.
A better example, because it bears a history in many ways so similar to our own, may be the story behind New Zealand’s national day, celebrated on the 6th of February. Officially referred to as Waitangi Day, it commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, also referred to as New Zealand’s founding document, between the British Crown and the New Zealand Maori chiefs in 1840.
Which brings me back to Australia.
It seems to me that our annual verbal stouch will get us nowhere until we answer the question of what exactly should an “Australia Day” celebrate?
Most certainly, it would need to celebrate our unity, not in a forced “my way or the highway”, but in a way that is voluntarily given and genuinely heart-felt by all in our multi-cultural communities. We are certainly a long way from achieving this, particularly as it requires by its very nature a reconciliation with decedents of the nation’s original inhabitants.
In addition, it would need to celebrate our true independence as a nation, but this too is not really possible under the present circumstances, saddled as we are with a system whereby we retain a Queen’s representative, in the form of the Governor-General, to keep an eye on us.
The only conclusion I can draw from all this is that, as a nation, we are not yet ready to have an “Australia Day” worthy of the name and that this fact that renders the current debate unreconcilable.
Yes, perhaps we ought to abolish the day for now, relegate the issue to the back burner until, perhaps, some time in the future, following the passing of our reigning monarch, when we, as a people, can hold a referendum to determine the kind of government we want for our nation, guided by a new Constitution that includes and respects the voices of our Indigenous peoples.
If it is democratically resolved at that time that we are to be a republic, we could then declare our very own, all inclusive national day, the date pre-selected so as to not offend anyone nor conflict with existing holidays, a very important point.
Now THAT would be an Australia Day worth celebrating.