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Solving the problem of Australia Day

Sunday, 21 January 2018  | Stephen Chavura

As predictable as the annual migration of the humpback whales to Hervey Bay is the spirited debate over whether or not the origins of Anglo-European Australia should be celebrated in the weeks leading up to January 26th. Some say that there is a problem with Australia Day, others that there is not.

I am one of those who think there is a problem.

The problem is the tension between celebrating Anglo-European civilisation on this continent and the sorrow felt by many Aboriginal people and their supporters over the negative impact of settlement/invasion on their tribes and cultures.

On the one hand, many enthusiasts for Australia Day want the Aboriginal critics and their non-Aboriginal advocates to basically ‘get over’ their resentment – some even suggesting that it is based on a false or excessively negative reading of Australian history. On the other hand, many critics of Australia Day wish to see the day scrapped altogether, or would like January 26th commemorated as ‘Invasion Day’ instead.

One thing is certain: there is no approach to the problem of celebrating or not celebrating this nation’s morally ambiguous origins and history that is going to make everybody happy.

I don't want to adjudicate on the accuracy of the blackest interpretations of black-white relations in Australian history, or those who want to, say, minimise the murders and emphasise good (albeit misguided) intentions towards Aborigines. I think we can all agree that, historically and in terms of contemporary measures of well-being, Aborigines have fared far worse than non-Aboriginal Australians on average. Even if Aborigines have benefitted from some of the boons of Anglo-European culture and institutions over the past 200 years, they have also been their victims.

It seems to me, then, that a significant degree of sorrow and even resentment is justified – not based only on history, but also on the present condition of so many indigenous people. It’s only natural that those who have been to a large degree the victims of the events celebrated on Australia Day refuse to say ‘Amen’ when we toast our country’s heritage.

Cancelling Australia Day or replacing it with Invasion Day, or something equally lachrymose, would be about as helpful as when the English Puritan Parliament cancelled Christmas from about 1643 to 1660. It would only lead to popular resentment, and galvanise an already strong and ugly quasi-ethnic nationalism that’s emerged in Australia over the past thirty years.

In other words, it just wouldn’t work. The other obvious event for national celebration would be Federation Day, but this happens to fall on January 1st – which is already sacred, albeit in a very secular way.

But need things be so difficult? Maybe not.

A possible approach to the increasing controversy over Australia Day is both very simple but, I hope, meaningful: we celebrate Australia Day the day after European settlement/invasion, that is, on January 27th.

Delaying the celebration to the 27th will allow for a moment of silence on the 26th, a day that symbolises and recognises the destruction upon which modern Australia was built and that reflects upon the present condition of many Aboriginal people.

I think this approach has some advantages.

First, we really do celebrate the achievements of the British and subsequent immigrants.

Second, it is hardly a small thing to push such a celebration back a day, being silent on the actual day of settlement. Is there any other country in the world that does this?

Third, those who feel both regret for dispossession but also gratitude for the achievements of settlement can express both sentiments in perhaps a less conflicted way. It would be like the solemnity of Good Friday - Christ's torture and execution (the 26th) - followed by the celebration of Resurrection Sunday (the 27th). The former always looking forward hopefully to the latter; and the latter never losing sight of the former.

Finally, no – the 26th will not be a public holiday. To make both the 26th and the 27th holidays would be excessive and unrealistic, and to take holiday status from the 27th under this proposal would be equivalent to cancelling Australia Day. If we can manage to work on 11/11 – Remembrance Day – and still remember, then I think we can on the 26th too.

Australia Day is here to stay, and I for one celebrate that. The achievements of Australians – indigenous and non-indigenous – in building and preserving the national institutions and character that have provided remarkable peace, prosperity and fairness in Australia ought to be celebrated. And yet the existing tensions cannot be swept away with cries of ‘Get over it!’

Shifting Australia Day to one day later than the actual Arrival is definite acknowledgement of the many wrongs inflicted on indigenous Australians, and an annual opportunity for all proud Australians to do their bit to achieve further healing.

Stephen A. Chavura is a historian and political theorist. He teaches history and politics at Macquarie University, Campion College, and the Lachlan Macquarie Institute.

This article was first published on 25th January 2017 at
http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=18795. Republished with permission.


January 22, 2018, 4:08PM
Hi Doc.

I’m with you on this one. I wrote something on my Facebook last year and got absolutely slammed for it. Here it is below. Hope you are well :)


On January 26th every year Australia celebrates 'Australia Day'. What is it celebrating? According to Wikipedia it celebrates '...the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships at Sydney Cove, New South Wales, and raising of the Flag of Great Britain at that site by Governor Arthur Phillip'.

So from this I read that a bunch of POMs arrive on ships, bang a British flag into the ground and 'BINGO' there is Australia. 

However, further research uncovers the following: 'Australia was previously known as New Holland in the west and New South Wales in the east. Matthew Flinders first proposed the name "Terra Australis", which became "Australia", the name adopted in 1824. This, however, was only the name for the continent. The country of Australia did not come into being until all the colonies on the continent of Australia federated in 1901, creating the Commonwealth of Australia'.

From this it would appear that to celebrate 'Australia Day' on Jan 26 from something that occurred in 1788 isn't just wrong, but would appear that it is historically incorrect? 

New Zealand (where I come from) doesn't have a 'New Zealand Day'. What NZ also does not have is the celebration of a day when a fleet of ships rocked up and a British flag was banged into the ground and claimed for the reigning King. We do, however, have a 'Waitangi Day' whereby a treaty was signed between the Maori and British. I'm not getting into the rights and wrongs of this treaty, but has a treaty ever been signed between the Aboriginals and the British? If not, why not? 

From these observations, it is quite understandable that the Aboriginals, the original owners, the custodians, the first people...of this great land, get upset about 'Australia Day'. I empathise. It is little wonder some refer to today as 'Invasion Day', how else can you explain what happened?

It is my view that on Jan 26th 1788, the British claimed 'Australia' for their own with scant disregard for the peoples who had lived here for thousands of years previous. It is also my view that to celebrate this day as 'Australia Day' just isn't 'fair dinkum'. 

I submit that 'Australia Day' should be celebrated based on events in 1901 and an appropriate day chosen. Jan 26 1788 should be confined to the annuls of history as a day in which a gross injustice was committed on the original inhabitants of this land. 

Whichever way you want to read this. Lets be very clear on one thing. I love Australia....my adopted home. I am not anti Australian. I chose to live here. Telling me to 'love it or leave' is both insulting and hypocritical. Loving Australia doesn't mean I choose to ignore the injustices committed. Loving Australia means I get to enjoy the security and way of life here...but also choosing to acknowledge the first peoples. For this reason I will never celebrate Australia Day on Jan 26. Never have, never will. If they choose to change the date in the future, then absolutely I will engage. But my choice, for now, is not to disrespect the first peoples by celebrating a day which for them is hurtful and humiliating.
January 24, 2018, 12:22AM
I agree there is a problem with Australia Day ... several problems.

It is more legitimately an invasion day than Australia Day (as against New South Wales Day, January 26 not having claimed Australia as a colony - indeed why celebrate the founding of a colony rather than the nation we have built?). We certainly do need a day to celebrate Australia in a way that enhances national unity rather than divides.

What we need as nation is a Reconciliation Day, but true reconciliation must come first. We are not yet ready and it certainly will take some time. It will not come under a government that simply brushes aside the Statement from the Heart. One day we will get a Reconciliation Day on a new date that celebrates a meaningful reconciliation.

For the present we can and should replace Australia Day with a Multicultural Australia Day to celebrate what we have become. Multicultural Australia Day can celebrate the first peoples, the English colonisers, the Irish famine refugees, Chinese gold seekers, and all the more recent waves of immigration including European, Indochinese, South American, mIddle Eastern refugees, Asian and African ... everyone, and be a truly uniting day for naturalisations.

But we must continue to strive for reconciliation. When we reach it we could replace the bank holiday/labour day with a truly meaningful Reconciliation Day.

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