Australia Day and the “Too Difficult Basket” — A Proposal

For too long, we Australians have allowed an unsightly festering sore to blight the celebration of our nationhood. The day we Australians currently choose to celebrate as Australia Day has become known as “Invasion Day”. With good reason as well since the first settlers dispossessed the indigenous peoples of their land. Then disease carried by those settlers virtually wiped out the Gadigul people that lived there.

Skin in Both Sides of the Game

I believed myself a multi-generational, middle class, white Australian of British roots. Much like many of my fellow Australians when I was growing up in the Sutherland Shire in the ’60s and ’70s. I accepted and welcomed Australia Day on the 26th of January because it was the last holiday before the start of school or university.

Based upon a family history completed by my late Aunt I had believed that I had an indigenous great grandfather. Based upon this information, and because my Aunt’s family research had been reliable in every other way, I started identifying myself as being of indigenous heritage.

But this not true as I found out when I received the results of an AncestryDNA(R) on 25th Feb. 2022 as shown below. Turns out my original assumption that I was white European was true as evidenced by the DNA, However, the experience of identifying as indigenous has been valuable in seeing the world in a very different way – at least for a while.

My AncestryDNA estimate of heritage.

A True Australia Day

Swearing-in of the Governor-General Lord Hopetoun, Centennial Park Sydney, 1901. Source: City of Sydney

The day we have settled upon, the 26th of January isn’t even based upon a historical understanding of what Australia Day should represent. Historically, Australia Day represents the day that 6-independent British colonies came together to form the Federation of Australia. That day was 1st January 1901 during a ceremony in Centennial Park in Sydney when the first Governor-General Lord Hopetoun, was sworn in together with Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, and a first Cabinet of federal ministers took the oath of office [1].

The temporary Cabinet consisted of 4 of the colonial State premiers: George Turner, Victoria; William Lyne, New South Wales; John Forrest, Western Australia; and Neil Lewis, Tasmania. The temporary first Cabinet served until elections could be held [2]. Federal elections were held on 29 and 30 March 1901. There are 111 newly-elected representatives for the Australian Parliament. The opening of the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia was on 9 May 1901 by the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V). It was a lavish ceremony with over 12 000 guests, held in the Exhibition Building [1].

After the ceremony, the guests left for the first sittings of the Federal Parliament in its temporary accommodations at the Victorian Parliament. The Senate met at 1:10 pm in the Victorian Legislative Council and the House of Representatives met at the Victorian Legislative Assembly at 2:30 pm [1]. The Victorian Parliament moved the Exhibition Building until the new Federal Parliament building was completed at Canberra in 1927.

These are the institutions that guarantee us our freedoms and way of life. This is what we should be celebrating on Australia Day. The history of our nation, as outlined in the paragraphs above should be known, and respected, by all Australians.

How can Australians gain respect and knowledge for their nation when we celebrate our national day on the 26th of January? The day that that Captain Arthur Phillip landed in Port Jackson, now the City of Sydney. A day that has no connection with our nationhood or the civil institutions of Australia in 2022.

From this point of view, celebrating Australia Day on 26th January is a failure. Worse, it might actually be contributing to public misunderstanding rather than education and national cohesion.

The “Too Difficult Basket”

1. An Alternate Day

Many Australians are happy with the 26th January as a convenient national holiday, The emphasis being on the holiday a day for BBQs, sports and being with family. But over the last decades, a chorus of voices has arisen from diverse sections of the community asking for the date to be changed. This is where the “Too Difficult Basket” comes into play. There is no agreed date to replace 26th January.

If we selected the actual day of Federation that would be the 1st January which is already a New Years Day holiday. We could use the date that The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 was passed by the British Parliament on 5 July 1900. Alternatively, we could use the date that Queen Victoria signed the Act on 9 July 1900. These dates are unsuitable, looking backward, as they do, to when Australia was a dependency of Britain.

A better alternative would be the sitting of the first Federal Parliament on 9th May, as mentioned above. This day is rarely mentioned in connection with Australia Day. Unfortunately, would conflict with the current Labour Day holidays in some States. For these reasons, an alternative date for Australian Day sits in the “Too Difficult Basket“.

2. A Day of National Reconciliation

We need a forward-looking occasion that celebrates a strong nation that determines its course. But in becoming that strong forward focused-nation we need to make amends with our past mistreatment of our First Nations people. A future day celebrating national reconciliation would be an appropriate choice as our National Day.

To achieve reconciliation we first need to remove the inequality that still exists. There are well-documented and persistent gaps in health outcomes for indigenous Australians [3]. There are also inequalities in housing, education as well in other areas

First Nations Australians need to be engaged at local, state and national levels, in a comprehensive process of truth-telling about colonial conflict and dispossession in Australian history [4]. Running in parallel with truth-telling, indigenous Australians need a ‘voice’ to express themselves when decisions are made that affect them at all levels of Government. This ‘voice’ should be built into the constitution [5].

There are processes underway in Makarrata that need to be introduced in a considered and negotiated manner. Nevertheless, it seems that at a Federal level, in particular, we lack the political will and vision to drive such a day of reconciliation forward [5]. Like many Australians, I believe such a day is inevitable but at the moment it sits in the “Too Difficult Basket”.

3. An Australian Republic Day

There are many Australians who believe that the true measure of a strong, mature, independent and forward-looking country is electing its Head of State (rather than being appointed from Britain, as is currently the case in Australia).

Research from the Australian Republican Movement currently shows that a republic is favoured by younger Australians and that if a referendum was to be called presently, that at 73% of Australians would vote for the Australian Choice Model, where the choice of the Head of State is voted upon by a majority of Australians.

A popular vote of 73% would be strong enough to meet the stringent conditions placed upon a change to the constitution imposed by our founding fathers: that of (i) a majority of voters and (ii) a majority of States. Such stringent conditions have ensured that of 19 referendums, proposing 44 changes to the Constitution; only 8 changes have been approved.

The previous referendum for the Australian Republic was for a Head of State to be appointed by a 2/3rds majority of both Houses of Parliament was held on 6th November 1999; didn’t gain a majority (45.13% of the nation-wide vote); nor did it gain a majority in any of the States. Therefore the results of the referendum were declared ‘not carried’.

One thing we learnt from that first referendum on a republic is that bipartisan support from the major political parties is required for any chance of success. The current Coalition Federal Government is unlikely to offer such bipartisan support, any more than the Coalition Government of 1999 did.

Other factors counting against a republic referendum:

  • the current British monarch is widely accepted and applauded;
  • many Australians would find voting for a republic to be insulting to the Queen. 

When the next monarch of Britain is called to the throne, which must surely happen in the next few years, then a republican referendum might gain more ground. For the moment, the option of the 26th of January as a day for the Australian Republic is also in the “ Too Difficult Basket “.

A Proposal

It is clear that Australia’s “Too Difficult Basket” is full to overflowing. We need to pick one item that can be acted upon in a reasonable time, e.g,. 3 years. If we can get that item out of the way then perhaps it will give us the national impetus to achieve other items out of the “Too Hard Basket“.

I propose to change the date of Australia Day to the first practicable day: 2nd January. This overcomes one objection to creating a brand new holiday because 2nd Jan is already within a holiday period and we have the 2nd of January as a holiday if New Years Day falls on a weekend. The 26th of January remains a holiday but we call it “Settlement Day” or “Foundation Day. It commemorates Captain Arthur Phillip’s settlement at Sydney Cove which became the colonial foundation of Australia.

The 2nd January we call “Australia Day” which recognises the 1st January as the day Australia became a Federation. It’s the day that we commemorate our founding Fathers, our constitution, our democracy, our civic institutions; all of those hard-won struggles which ensure our freedoms and our way of life today. Because we have allowed Australia Day to be clouded by the 1788 landing of Captain Arthur Phillip most of us have never known, or have forgotten, the struggle leading up to the Federation in 1901.

I’ll avoid what seems like mandatory jokes at this point about the Constitution and Federation being deadly dull. True, there were no wars to be fought and won in Australia. There were no revolutions to carry out. There was no despotic tyrant to be slain. The Australian Constitution and Federation are uniquely interesting because they were achieved peaceably. No one died. In our next steps forward: a peaceable Reconciliation Day or a peaceable Republic Day, the Federation 1901 represents the ideal that we surely need to emulate.

Most importantly, the nexus between Captain Arthur Phillip and the celebration of the Federation in 1901 is broken. With my proposal, we’ll have separate days to commemorate both. This would do a lot to salve the festering sore of Australia Day as “Invasion Day”.

Sure, the retention of the 26th of Jan will be objectionable to many. What I’m proposing won’t achieve all our goals in one step. I’m just proposing that we take one achievable step rather than leaving everything in the “Too Hard Basket“. Maybe then we’ll have the impetus to move forward in the next steps of our nationhood.


“I pay my respects to my elders both past and present and acknowledge that the land we all live, work and play on was, is and always will be Aboriginal land.”

___________

[1] Parliamentary Education Office, “The Federation of Australia”; accessed: 24th January 2022; available online: https://peo.gov.au/understand-our-parliament/history-of-parliament/federation/the-federation-of-australia/

[2] National Archives of Australia 1961-2021 (NAA 60), “Inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia – Governor-General Lord Hopetoun taking his oath of office”; Citation: A1200, L83908; published: 1901; accessed 24th January 2022; available online: https://www.naa.gov.au/learn/learning-resources/learning-resource-themes/government-and-democracy/federation/inauguration-commonwealth-australia-governor-general-lord-hopetoun-taking-his-oath-office

[3] Dobb and Ho, “Intensive Care and the Gaps in Health Outcomes for Indigenous Australians.” Med J Aust 2019; 210 (11): 492-493; published: 17 June 2019; accessed 25th January 2022; available online: https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2019/210/11/intensive-care-and-gaps-health-outcomes-indigenous-australian

[4] Reconciliation Australia, “Truth-Telling”; Accessed: 27th January 2022; available online: https://www.reconciliation.org.au/reconciliation/truth-telling/

[5] Gabrielle  Appleby, “An Indigenous ‘Voice’ Must Be Enshrined in Our Constitution. Here’s Why.” The Conversation, published: 22nd January 2021; accessed 29th January 2022; available online: https://theconversation.com/an-indigenous-voice-must-be-enshrined-in-our-constitution-heres-why-153635

[6] The Founding of Australia. By Capt Arthur Phillip RN Sydney Cove, Jan 26th 1788 oil painting by Algernon Talmage RA 1937. Held at the State Library of NSW. (out of copyright). Available online: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/collection-items/founding-australia-capt-arthur-phillip-rn-sydney-cove-jan-26th-1788#:~:text=It%20was%20commissioned%20by%20the,exhibition%20in%20London%20in%201937.

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