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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