One of the planet’s great herd migrations is almost at an end for another year. Across Australia each summer, tens of thousands of people abandon sweaty cities in search of the cool waters along the coast, as the nation schedules a collective out-of-office message.
There is no need to reach back to history to find an excuse to celebrate. Australia should make history.
Courts are mostly shut down, bureaucratic deadlines are deferred, not a builder holds a hammer, and even for those unlucky enough to be at work, the weekend seems extra long.
Accepted wisdom has it that the public doesn’t welcome the rude interruption of politics in these days of sand and sunburn that span the month between Christmas and Australia Day on 26 January. Queensland’s Campbell Newman ignored this rule to his cost in 2015 when he ran a state election campaign across January – and lost. His cause wasn’t helped after then prime minister Tony Abbott royally stuffed up one summer with his “barbecue stopper” announcement to award the Queen’s husband Prince Philip a knighthood.
Typically, Australians seem to prefer the national conversation fall into a certain annual ritual around at this time of year. The media cycle slows down. The cricket is bound to throw up a controversy to debate. The tennis will then become a talking point. Somewhere in the mix will be warnings about swimming dangers, and you can almost mark the calendar with some horror story like a giant python sneaking into a boy’s bedroom and coiling tight around his arm in his sleep. (No, really.)
Shaun Carney, a former newsroom colleague, used to mark another of these “hardy annuals”, a story that would crop up every year during the summer news cycle. For him, it was the debate about Australia becoming a republic, linked to 26 January, the day designated to celebrate the nation. Carney, then a columnist at The Age, described this debate in 2010 as one that provided:
A predictable, intrinsically inconsequential story that can be trotted out at the same time every year to little lasting effect.
Carney supported a republic. But he was convinced the then growing “nation of flag-wavers”, especially around Australia Day, would stymie any chance of change. This, along with divisions within the republican movement about a minimalist model versus direct elections for a head of state, and the opposition within conservative/monarchist ranks stands in the way of the republican cause. As he put it:
The truth is that there is absolutely no urgency attached to the change [to a republic] and it’s hard to see the circumstances in which there ever will be, unless Britain decides to declare war on Australia. Would it make us richer or make our streets safer? No … Anyway, we can have another talk about this. How about, say, late January next year?
Nearly a decade on, Carney was half right. There is no republic, although Bill Shorten has pledged a referendum within a first term should Labor win government, even if a couple of flashy foreign royals has apparently already put paid to hope of it passing.
But what has changed markedly is the subject of debate around Australia Day. Now the talk is far more consequential, urgent and pointed.
It should have always been obvious that designating a date that British settlers arrived in the country as a national day of celebration would be offensive to indigenous Australians. Britain, in a sense, already had its war against the first people of Australia. Maybe, in those languid summer months decades later, the problem of the date was lost on the rest of the country. But the longstanding opposition to “Invasion Day” certainly has prominence now, and was given heartfelt expression this month by reporter and Gamilaroi woman Brooke Boney on morning television:
"This is the best country in the world no doubt. But I can't separate the 26th of January from the fact that my brothers are more likely to go to jail than they are to go to school" says @BoneyBrooke, a proud Gamilaroi woman. #9Today pic.twitter.com/fJRzobPeTG— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) January 16, 2019
In recent years, some local councils have decided to cancel citizenship ceremonies usually held on the Australia Day, which in turn sparked a backlash – supported by Prime Minister Scott Morrison – to force support for the date. Yet despite this government effort to “back a winner”, to borrow a phrase from economics, the commercial reality seems pretty clear. Australia Day cannot be marketed into a day of national unity. (And in a related fashion, a chiko roll themed poke at a proposed Captain James Cook re-enactment is the best of a larrikin national spirit.)
An unexpected contribution to this debate arrived this week with Jeff Kennett, a prominent Liberal in Victoria and former state premier, chiming in with a call to change the date in a thoughtful column in the Melbourne Herald-Sun.
Kennett put the issue into an international context. He surveyed the national day of other countries, to see why they celebrate. Americans on 4 July celebrate the anniversary of independence from Britain, rather than the arrival of the first Europeans. Germans celebrate 3 October, for the 1990 unification of the long divided east and west. Indonesians mark the anniversary of the nation’s foundation on 17 August, and he listed other examples besides.
The point, as Kennett put it:
Is that January 26 was not the foundation of Australia. It already existed. Nor does the date celebrate our independence. It simply marks the arrival of explorers and invaders from distant lands.
The cost to indigenous Australians from European settlement was severe, in lives and lands disposed. And the cost is lasting. A national apology for past wrongs and campaigns for recognition in the constitution can be debated, but ultimately, the indigenous community still carries the burden. Reconciliation, however defined, remains unfinished business for Australia.
This should never be allowed to be treated as another “hardy annual”, a challenge discussed around the day each year parliament reports on efforts to “close the gap”, and instead judged as a relentless priority against the much-vaunted concept of a fair go. This can start by government and citizens alike meaningfully engaging with the 2017 Uluru statement from the heart.
The two issues that have defined the annual Australia Day debate are distinct, but both hearken back to a struggle with identity, for a young country in a formal fashion and an ancient continent. Australians project a sense of ease and comfort within ourselves, but the tension in both these conversations is evident. The question is whether as a people Australians can confront this tension directly, away from a summer ritual, and see it resolved.
But Kennett, too, was only half right. On the symbolism of a national day, he suggested Australia Day be celebrated on 1 January, the anniversary of the federation, when Australia’s colonies joined into a commonwealth in 1901.
Better that a modern Australia celebrates a modern occasion. There is no need to reach back to history to find an excuse for a national party. Australia should make history. It’s time for another republic debate, to show the social riches that will come from a declaration of independent confidence, and then the date of a successful referendum can become the anniversary to celebrate.
India already has 26 January as its own Republic Day. Let’s, as Australians, band together and find our own.