australian politics

Jan 26, 2009

Changing Australia Day

Change 26th January to Citizenship Day, become a Republic, and make Australia Day the anniversary of the adoption of a Treaty with Indigeno

Change 26th January to Citizenship Day,
become a Republic,
and make Australia Day the anniversary
of the adoption of a Treaty with Indigenous Australians. Easy!

Australian of the Year, Aboriginal academic and activist, Professor Mick Dodson, has made the rather unremarkable point that many Indigenous Australians don’t feel overly positive about using January 26th to celebrate Australia Day.

Prof Dodson said “Many of our people call it invasion day but I think Australia is mature enough now to have the conversation about that. And let’s get on with it.”

Kevin Rudd agreed that “it is natural and right from time to time, that there will be conversations about such important symbols for our nation.”

To show how interested he was in paying attention to that conversation, Mr Rudd indicated he would not support the idea, regardless of what everyone else said.

“Let me say a simple, respectful, but straightforward no,” he said.

Mr Rudd’s response not only ignores any national conversation which does occur, but also dismisses the  Roadmap for Reconciliation, the actioning of which was one of only 6 recommendations from the final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 2000.  Adopting these recommendations is part of the Labor Party’s official platform.

Meanwhile, many readers on the Daily Telegraph’s website did their best to show that Prof Dodson was wrong in believing that Australia is now mature enough to have a conversation on the topic, unleashing the a volley of vitriol and abuse not overly different to what has been thrown at Indigenous Australians in this country for the last couple of centuries.

Calls to change Australia Day are manna from heaven for right-wing radio shock jocks and history warriors, so it’s no surprise Kevin Rudd wants to shut down debate on it straight away and get us all back to pondering how bad the economy is.

But it is not only Indigenous Australians who feel that 26th January is not the best day to celebrate our unity as a nation.  Many of the millions of Australians who are not of British heritage are also likely to find another day more meaningful.  Plenty of other people who, like me, have some British ancestry, also feel the same.

All of my ancestors arrived in the Australian colonies at various times throughout the 19th century.  But I still don’t believe the anniversary of the establishment of the British colony of New South Wales should be used to celebrate Australia’s nationhood. 

It is not just that this date marks the start of a dispossession, displacement and killing of Aboriginal Australians far more brutal than our nation is still able to admit or acknowledge.

I also don’t see why a nation which has become independent from the country which colonised them would celebrate their national day on the anniversary of colonisation. Most other nations with this sort of history celebrate on the date of independence, not the day of colonisation.

Republicans might argue that Australia is still not sully independent until we no longer have the British Monarch automatically serving as our head of state.  But in a legal sense, Australia is now a fully independent nation.

The date when Australia came into existence as a country was January 1st 1901, when the various colonies became states as part of the federation of Australia.  Some Australians would probably not support January 1st as Australia Day, because we already have a public holiday on that day, and they wouldn’t lose a public holiday. 

There is something to be said for celebrating a new nation at the start of a new year, but the process of federation also contained aspects which were far from inclusive of all who lived here at the time.  Not only did Indigenous Australians still have far lesser rights under the law.  A key driver of federation was a White Australia mentality, and many non-white Australian residents – especially Chinese, other Asians and south sea Islanders – were subject to widespread deportation at various stages because they were not British (and not white). 

At the time of Federation, all ‘Australians’ were still British subjects.  There was no such thing as an Australian citizen until 1949.  Even after that date, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who served from 1949 – 1966, was comfortably able to say he was “British to his bootstraps”.

According to this information sheet from the National Archives:

Throughout the 1960s, Australian citizens were still required to declare their nationality as British. The term ‘Australian nationality’ had no official recognition or meaning until the Act was amended in 1969 and renamed the Citizenship Act. This followed a growing sense of Australian nationalism and the declining importance for Australians of the British Empire. In 1973 the Act was renamed the Australian Citizenship Act. It was not until 1984 that Australian citizens ceased to be British subjects.

The right to appeal decisions in Australian Courts to the British Privy Council was  not finally abolished until the 1980s.  The power of the British Parliament to legislate for Australia was not legally removed until the adoption of the Australia Act in 1986.  This Act came into force on 3rd March, but I think that’s a bit too obscure for most people to want to claim that as Australia Day.

Some people have suggested we shouldn’t change the date of Australia Day, given how much angst and controversy it would probably cause, but instead change what the day celebrates.

As the first Citizenship Act came into operation on January 26th 1949, this date could be reshaped as a celebration of what being a citizen of Australia is all about.  More people currently become Australian citizens on this day than any other day of the year, so acknowledging it as Citizenship Day has some merit.

We could then have another day as Australia Day. Apart from January 1st as the anniversary of Federation, some have suggested 27th May as the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which enabled Aboriginal people to be counted in the national census.  Australian football legend Ron Barassi has expressed support for this date.

Barassi said recognising the May 27 date would be the next step on the path to reconciliation.
He said it would be a natural progression after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said “sorry” to the indigenous population last year.

“Australia Day is the day put aside to focus attention on just what a great country this is. But I reckon we’re celebrating the wrong day,” he said.

“I think we should change the date of Australia Day. We were invaders and conquerors in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived and we took this land from the Aborigines. “January 26 just doesn’t sit right with me and I’d prefer it were changed.”

Others have suggested February 13th would be appropriate as the anniversary of the federal Parliament’s apology for the Stolen Generation.  Personally, I am not so keen on this date, as the history regarding the Stolen Generations is only part – and far from the worst part- of the injustices inflicted on Indigenous Australians. 

Despite Kevin Rudd having already said the answer is “no”, I agree with Prof Dodson, and others like chair of the Australia Day Council, Adam Gilchrist, that it is good idea to have this conversation and become more aware of our own history and what being Australian should be about. 

However, I very much doubt there will be any movement on this topic until after the Australian people have agreed for Australia to become a Republic.  Once that last major symbolic linkage to our colonial past is gone (apart from the Union Jack on the corner of our flag ), perhaps we will be more capable of the sort of mature debate Prof Dodson has called for.

If Australia does become a republic, the anniversary of that date could also be a candidate Australia Day.  Of course, it would easy to have a Republic commence formally on the 26th January – although India already has that date as their Republic Day – but one of the other dates mentioned might be more suitable in any case. 

For me, the ideal day would be the one marking when the Australian nation finally adopted a Treaty with Indigenous Australians, to mark us finally coming together as a united, reconciled and settled nation.  We will never really be into the post-colonial era until this happens. 

However, despite this also being one of the recommendations of the final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation which Labor’s National Platform promises to implement, if we wait that long before looking to change the date of Australia Day, we could well be waiting a very long time indeed.

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23 thoughts on “Changing Australia Day

  1. jeremyd

    “It was not until 1984 that Australian citizens ceased to be British subjects.”

    so says the National Archives – but does that make it so?

    an email to them – detailing the legislation I found that was relevant – elicited the reply that “…In terms of offering you advice on immigration and citizenship policy, we are not in a position to do so …”

    So it’s not clear whether they either know or care whether their information is accurate

  2. beevo

    OK Liz… you win. Change the day I really don’t care. If anyone doesn’t want to celebrate Australia Day then my answer is simple…DONT DO IT. Ignore it, turn up for work, whatever you like. I only request that you please don’t burn my flag… I like it and would take it as a personal insult. Meanwhile any better suggestions to help the plight of indiginous Australians would be welcomed as there is an awfull lot of protest but practical solutions are very thin on the ground from ALL sides. I would imagine a marketing person trying to sell this cause would advise against putting a negative spin on a holiday when all Australians are encouraged to forget their differences and pull together as a single nation. Should we also abandon Christmas since it is a Pagan holiday after all and an awful lot of crimes against humanity have been commited under the Christian Flag over the last couple of thousand years? Maybe so since I am an Atheist after all but I wouldn’t expect hearty support and donations to come rolling in and a lot of us would be sad to see it go. I like Christmas. Most of us couldn’t care WHEN we celebrate these days but are offended and polarised when faced with a militant mindset demanding that we change our traditions. If you ask me, from near genocide to Australian of the Year is a big achievement for the Aboriginal People over a couple of hundred years and this needs to be capitalised upon and not jeopardised by zealous activists.
    Apologies again Liz but don’t bring your anti-british sentiments with you. We do like to see ourselves as independent. The problems and laws we must deal with today are of our own making and for us to solve. No matter what comes before, we are responsible for our own actions and inactions while we walk the planet (all of us). I do not take responsibility for the First Fleet nor any of the hardship that followed but I recognise that it happened and there is no way to undo that. What will it take for us to all move on? We each deal with what we inherit in the best way we can and we must strive to leave a better legacy for our children than that which we received. We cannot turn back 200 years and start again. Too much has changed. We talk of nations and governments and races like they are something apart from us but these are are all just collections of people. We are these things we complain about. All individuals all born weak helpless and naked with nothing of our own and no guarantees to see the next sunrise. Totally dependent on others to form our image of the world and attitudes. Babies are not born with hate in their hearts and they dont know what colour they are.
    Finally Liz please spare me the racist comments about “anglo-saxons”. Just because they were white? How do you know they weren’t Irish? I find it an offensive generalisation and thought that is what we were all debating at the core. Those of whom you speak have their own racial identity that is well know in Australia and knows no boundary of skin-colour; – Ratbags.

  3. Jon Hunt

    I only asked about Mr Bolt because I noticed his article whilst visiting Melbourne last week. It’s the first time I had read the Herald Sun. And I am hoping it is the last. It is amazing that someone appears pays him to write stuff that wouldn’t get a passing grade in high school English. He also appears to be on the radio..eek!

  4. Liz45

    I agree with those who believe that January 26 is offensive, not only to indigenous people, but to many like myself, whose ancestors were predominantly of Irish background. I’ve never celebrated Australia Day, in fact a couple of years ago I attempted to visit an aboriginal protest site but couldn’t find my way there, and my radiator decided me to return home. This year watching the actions of some anglo-saxon peoples’ horrific behaviour only made me feel anger and shame. Anyone who’s bothered to read of what happened to aboriginal people from the beginning, must come to understand, that despite the efforts of some, both in Australia and Britain, many actions of outright murder, rape and human rights abuses was the norm. Why would aboriginal people wish to celebrate the disturbing, restrictive and oppressive actions by the British and its legal & parliamentary laws, used to the detriment of aboriginal people. It was an invasion, and that led to a violent occupation, a 100 year old war that resulted in the deaths of 20,000 aboriginal people (a conservative estimate).

    Watch First Australians on line, and read the many books that are available, probably in peoples’ libraries around the country. As for Andrew Bolt? I don’t need to read any more of his offensive and racist articles, that either ignore historical truths, or manipulates truth to suit his own extreme right wing agendas. There’s a simple way for people who are interested in justice, to use fact and apply it to their own family, both present and past. Or, use it in todays climate. How would it feel to have strangers invade this country, turf us out of our homes, carve up the land and sell it to other invaders, and deny us the right to even be included in the ‘new’ country? Then, remove kids who didn’t ‘look’ the way deemed superior, lock them up, bash them etc.How would you feel if expected to celebrate these horrors? It’s not as though this was and is the only country Britain has invaded, nor is it the only one where the indigenous people were murdered, poisoned, raped and had all rights removed. Convenient amnesia doesn’t change history, nor does ignorance and hatred! Sadly, there’s too much of these negatives still alive in this country. I applaud the choice of Mick Dodson as Australian of the Year. I’m not interested in the arguments that he’s not a worthy recipient. If we’re really interested in reconciliation, then he’s the right person to help bring it about. Thankfully, there are thousands, hopefully millions who agree. To use Mick’s own words during his speech at the Opera House on 27th May 2000 when he spoke of past history and the Howard govt’s refusal to say ‘sorry’ and his hope for reconciliation, and a better future for all of us. He said, “Denialism if the enemy of reconciliation”! (I hope Andrew Bolt and others would take note.)

    “There are those who will come along and try to denigrate and obstruct reconciliation and our efforts. We must try our best to bring them along on our journey. And, if they are not willing to walk with us, we must leave them behind.

    The central importance of our national task is too great to be derailed by pettiness and denial.”

    I taped this speech at the time. I watch it from time to time to remind me of the past, sadly present ingrained racist attitudes, and to hope for a united country in the future. A good start would be to change the date of Australia Day to one where it’s inclusive, regardless of origin of birth, or the colour of ones skin!

  5. Jon Hunt

    I think “invasion” is meant to be a metaphor for how they feel. It is not meant to be taken literally. The point is that it doesn’t really matter whether or not it was an “invasion” as in a military sense. The end result has been the same and that’s the way they feel about it and talk about it; this is really all that matters. In pragmatic terms historical accuracy is irrelevant.

  6. beevo

    A little factual balance please? The first fleet could hardly be considered an invading force. They were lucky to survive day-to-day and it was surprising that they didn’t all kill each other in that first year. Let us not paint this as some kind of beach landing on Iwo jima. There was definite original intent to coexist in peace with the inhabitants but the mentalilty at the time did not recognise ownership or understand the connection of indiginous people with the land. In his first week Captain John Hunter wrote;
    “In the different opportunities I have had of getting a little acquainted with the natives, who reside in and about this port, I … think that it will be no very difficult matter … to conciliate their friendship and confidence … whenever we have laid aside our arms, and have made signs of friendship, they have always advanced unarmed … I am inclined to think, that by residing some time amongst them, or near them, they will soon discover that we are not their enemies; a light they no doubt considered us in on our first arrival …”
    Early clashes were initiated by convicts who were punished for their actions. But as the colony grew over the next few years and impinged on Aboriginal land for farming (for survival of the colony) so naturally the aboriginal people fought back and things went from bad to worse. Some of these guerilla campaigns were very effective and conceivably they could have prevailed but technology won the day as it always does with wars.
    If there must be an “Invasion Day” then it could be Jan 18 when the Cadigal people of Botany Bay watched the arrival of the first fleet. They moved to Port Jackson on Jan 25. Oddly enough some French commander (LaPerouse) sailed in and fired on the Cadigal on January 24! The French stayed until March 10th. What was that all about?! :).
    Myself, I am happy enough to celebrate Australia Day on Jan 26th as a tribute to who and what we have become from such difficult beginnings and still recognising that we all have work to do. Or, if you prefer you may commemorate the only successful armed takeover of Government In Australia on Jan 26th 1808. Yes a military coup on our own shores. Anna Blilgh’s great-great-great grandfather William was arrested by the military and deposed as Governor. Maybe there will be some indiginous support for that one.

  7. Jon Hunt

    I think if I read people talking about Aboriginal people as being backwards etc one more time I will scream. Again. Such words only reinforce the argument that this is not the case. As I have said before, global warming, species extinction, land degradation, the stuffed murray river are not the result of superior people. More they are stupid people who are too greedy to realise that what they are doing is not sustainable. In 60,000 years Indigenous people will prove they are in fact smarter than us, cos what we rely on to be “superior” will be all gone. Pity you won’t live that long to see it.

  8. Jon Hunt

    Did anyone read the article by Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun on his disagreement with Mick Dodson getting the award?

  9. J

    This is an important discussion – one we need to have, rather than put off like so many symbolic-cultural discussions in the last decade.

    January 26 is inappropriate, because of its euro- and anglocentricity. The day a Republic is adopted seems appropriate; that would be truly a national day. Accordingly, the major cultural movement in the present needs to be Republicanism, not a movement to change the national day. I would presume that most supporters of one are supporters of both.

  10. Generic Person

    yulia, most Australians do not have any issue with being treated as equals. The problem is that many indigenous people, particularly in remote areas, are propped up by a never-ending stream of government assistance on the back of the hard work of average Australians.

  11. Generic Person

    Sam, if by “destruction of their way of life” you mean “destruction of their backward, stone-age existence”, then I’m not sure that there’s anything to feel sad about.

  12. yulia

    I really would like to see a sensible mature discussion happening about changing the date of Australia Day to one more appropriate and of positive and prideful significance to all Australians.

    Sadly I don’t believe the majority of the minority who consider themselves the ‘true blue’ Australians are anywhere near ready to contemplate a change that may lead to them having to acknowledge equality with a whole bunch of assorted ‘other’ Australians.

    These people cling to the notion that because their British forefathers came here and claimed the land, they are somehow the real Australians – better and more deserving than those who came before and those who came after.

    I doubt very much whether becoming a republic will change that at all.

    Love to be proved wrong though!

  13. Bartlett on Australia Day « Public Polity

    […] Indigenous Issues | Tags: andrew bartlett, australia day, blog, crikey | by Sam Clifford Andrew Bartlett has blogged at Crikey regarding the proposed move to Australia Day. He touches on similar themes to what I did, including […]

  14. Sam Clifford

    Great post, Andrew. You’ve pretty much said all of what I wanted to say but in a far more eloquent manner. As someone who grew up in a middle class, white, suburban family descended from fairly recent Irish and English migrants (3rd-5th generation Australian) I can’t help but feel sad that the original inhabitants of our land have their pain celebrated yearly with a public holiday commemorating the beginning of the destruction of their way of life.

    I agree with having a national holiday on the date of adoption of a reconciled republic but that’s going to be a long way off. Just because something’s in the ALP’s platform doesn’t mean they’re going to fight vigorously for its implementation, particularly with Rudd at the helm.

  15. Jon Hunt Saint. My ancestors were French, Scottish, Chinese and English. I don’t necessarily believe it is a gift to be born Australian. Unfortunately people like what you appear to be are the reason for this. I love this country, but I think that sometimes there are some Australians are just an embarassment to the others.

  16. Andrew Bartlett

    I see Saint, so previously people didn’t care what day Australia Day was celebrated on, until some people suggested that historical facts might make it better suited for a different day, at which time it suddenly became essential to celebrate it on January 26th?! How very mature!

    If my views actually don’t reflect the views of “any of us”, then who are these “others” you speak of who are supposedly joining me in turning this day into so-called “greviance theatre”?

    Still, you’re the first person I’ve heard accuse Ron Barassi of using Australia Day as ‘prop for his grievance theatre’. Maybe he’s a ‘professional whinger’ too.

    You would have to be a moonbat from the darkest side of our satelitte not to know that there are plenty of other non-Indigenous people who hold views similar to mine on this issue. But unlike you, I don’t actually purport to be speaking for anyone. I am doing that thing called “expressing an opinion”. It is a shame that some people feel so insecure about their country that they lash out as soon as they encounter anyone having a different opinion to their own.

    Personally, like Prof Dodson, I have far more confidence in the maturity of most Australians to be able to cope with people having different opinions and feelings on an issue.

  17. Michael Carroll

    Saint you react too easily to reject even the discussion of ideas you find disturbing to contemplate. Andrew wrote a post that asked whether it was time to have a discussion about our National Day – you described him as bitter and twisted.

    How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye?

  18. saint

    No Andrew, people were perfectly happy to celebrate Australia Day on whatever day, until you and others like you turned it into another prop for your grievance theatre. Like I said you do not speak for any of us.

  19. Andrew Bartlett

    Thanks for your remarks Saint. As I said in my piece, it seemed there were many Australians who are not able to manage a mature debate on the topic. It seems you are another.

    Still, it’s a shame that you don’t care about the views of your fellow Australians.

    I don’t recall saying I was speaking for you, even though you apparently think you speak for every single Australian other than me. I suggest if you somehow managed to interpret my comments as somehow suggesting that I am not grateful for being born Australian, then you clearly have some difficulties with basic English comprehension.

    I was simply stating a fact that many Australians are not comfortable with January 26th as the national day or would find another day more meaningful. I don’t know why stating a simple fact should merit your little tirade in response, but it’s certainly not my problem.

  20. saint

    But it is not only Indigenous Australians who feel that 26th January is not the best day to celebrate our unity as a nation. Many of the millions of Australians who are not of British heritage are also likely to find another day more meaningful. Plenty of other people who, like me, have some British ancestry, also feel the same.

    You know what Bartlett? I am the descendant of immigrants. My family hails from all sorts of backgrounds, most not British. You do not speak for any of us. So why not just admit you are a bitter twisted individual who just can’t be grateful for the gift of being born Australian and leave the rest of us out of it, OK? Ditto to professional government-funded whingers like Dodson. Just because you have a gigantic chip on your shouldler doesn’t mean the rest of us care.

  21. Jon Hunt

    I am not the least bit surprised that Aboriginal people aren’t too keen on celebrating Australia Day. I’m an ignorant non-Aboriginal Australian and as such didn’t have a clue as to what Australia Day actually was for. A quick look at advises me that: “The raising of the Union Jack there (Sydney Cove) symbolised British occupation of the eastern half of the continent claimed by Captain James Cook on 22 August in 1770”. Note the word “occupation”. Hmm… now replace “British” with “the invading forces”. Little wonder Aboriginal people are a bit upset with the celebration of this event. Hypocritically this celebration thus excludes the most Australian Australians of this country. Most ordinary non-Aboriginal people won’t see it that way because in their view the settlers of this country conquered and tamed the harsh outback, whilst at the same time fighting off all those primitive savages (who incidentally tamed the harsh outback 60,000 years ago). And besides which, who really cares what Aboriginal people might think?

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