Why not changing the date is denying history

25 January 2018

Why not changing the date is denying history

What makes a national day?

In the United States, as with the majority of nations, it is a commemoration of defiant independence. France celebrates the storming of a fortress – a moment of fire and blood that gave way to the Republic.  Over the border, it is a day of unification, when East and West reunited as one Germany.

In short, it is a day where a country looks to the past to celebrate the present – a reflection on an event that formed the nation that exists today, and complements a celebration of all its unique values and qualities.

Australia is a land with a lot to celebrate. At our best, we are the land of the fair go, the lucky country where anyone is welcome to seek a life of freedom and opportunity. We are a continental nation of stunning beauty, whose landscapes and wildlife are admired the world over. We are a melting pot built on the back of its diversity, sharing a heritage as old as the Dreamtime with the millions who have come to our shores. Over the years, in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, we have forged a society that prides itself on equity and justice and looks after its citizens from cradle to grave. And even as we tangle with our shortcomings, we remain a nation to be reckoned with.

How do we go about celebrating this?

At present, we commemorate the 26th of January, a Saturday in 1788 which saw eleven ships lower anchors in Sydney Cove, carrying what would come to be the first European settlement on the Australian continent. On this day, we – as a sovereign and independent nation –  endeavor to celebrate our unique national identity and our diverse cultural heritage.

The colony of New South Wales, of course, was the furthest thing from independent or a nation, let alone the one we know today. A federated Australia would not exist for another 113 years. Indeed, “Australia” would only be used in cartography to refer to our continent in 1804.  Nor was it thought of that way at the time. This first settlement (formally proclaimed on 7 February 1788) was a British penal colony and nothing more. Accordingly, no sense of national pride immediately took shape around the 26th of January. Rather than associate themselves with the convict origins of New South Wales, the other colonies would dismissively celebrate their respective foundings, even past Federation. As the Australian experiment slowly began to take shape, a common national day remained conspicuously absent. Aside from the celebration of the centenary of the landings in 1888, it was only until 1938 that the idea of ‘Anniversary Day’ as a date of national significance firmly took root, and 1994 that the 26th of January was officially marked with a public holiday in each state.

Our national identity itself only started to form in the 1800s, as New South Welshmen (mainly emancipated convicts) started to feel uniquely Australian.  As this became more ubiquitously celebrated, it became clear that this identity started and ended – unsurprisingly – with British settlement. When the first private dinners started to annually commemorate “First Landing Day” or “Foundation Day”, it was to celebrate the institution of the colony under Governor Phillip. When founded, most other colonies did the same. Tasmania celebrated Regatta Day, Western Australia had its Foundation Day, and South Australia its Proclamation Day – all dates marking the arrival of white settlers in their respective territories.

Historically, the 26th of January and its equivalents always represented founding of a British colony, not a nation, and exclusively celebrated nothing more than the colonization of what was thought of as a rough and unsettled land.

Of course, we now know conclusively that the latter part of that sentiment was comprehensively false, to the tune of over 50,000 years. They knew as much at the time too. Henry Parkes, then Premier of NSW, remarked that including Aborigines in the Centenary Celebrations in 1888 would be to “remind them that we have robbed them”.

Without rehashing the worst parts of our national story since 1788, celebrating Australia on a date specifically marking the commencement of British settlement has always been a rejection of the history that preceded the First Fleet. The 26th of January does not, and has never, symbolized a national celebration that includes Aboriginal Australia. And this glaring hole in the Australian narrative has always been a source of protest. The Centenary Celebrations of 1888 were boycotted by Aboriginal leaders. The 1938 celebrations were accompanied by a Proclamation of a Day of Mourning, which condemned the 26th of January as the 150th “anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country”.  It was no accident that the Tent Embassy was founded on Australia Day 1972 to protest Aboriginal land rights. As the Bicentenary of 1988 came and went, more than 40,000 people – the largest demonstration since the Viet-Nam Moratorium – marched for Justice, Freedom and Hope in Sydney. And the tradition continues to the present day. Australia Day annually sees thousands of Australians on the streets rather than over their BBQs.

But why? Is the day on which we celebrate our national day that important?

The responses fall down expected lines. Most Australians feel positively towards about Australia Day; most ATSI Australians do not. The majority of First Australians want the date changed; the rest of Australia doesn’t care one way or another.  This might not be consensus per se – it does make it perfectly clear that the celebration of the 26th is still deeply unsettling to most Aboriginal Australians, and an insensitive choice for a national day.

And yet, a date is simply a marking on a Gregorian calendar. When it comes down to it, a national day is a symbolic gesture. It is true that change in a celebration date will not make a substantive difference to Indigenous lives. To our lasting shame, as the latest reports indicate, we are still falling far behind in closing the gap.

But symbolism is not worthless. The National Apology of 2008 was just words spoken in Federal Parliament, with mixed results nine years on. Along with the Redfern Speech of 1992, it remains a powerful moment in Australian history: an important and long overdue acknowledgment of historical wrongs, a reorientation of the political agenda, and the start of revitalized efforts in the fight to do better. No one would argue we would be better off if these words were not spoken. The same argument can be made for the Acknowledgement to Country, in promoting an awareness of the connection that First Australians have with their land, that was lacking in years past. It is not a magic wand. But something is better than nothing. And insofar as a debate on our national day ensues, we should not dismiss it lightly – only bear in mind its limited impact in making a substantive difference.

That being said, the subtlety of choosing a date on which to celebrate a nation cannot be overemphasized. When it comes to national days, it is important to get the symbolism right, so that we exemplify our country properly, with a historical significance that moves as much as it inspires. Where there are flaws in symbolism, it is better that they are corrected.  The 9th of November marked the fall of Berlin Wall and the defeat of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. It also marked the start of Kristallnacht in 1938. All that is worthy of celebration about Germany was not best represented by a date stained by problematic and conflicting history – German Unity Day is therefore celebrated on 3 October instead. Similarly, there is a reason the United States does not celebrate its national day on the date the Plymouth Colony was founded – its uniquely British origins do not make it the best date to celebrate what the modern and independent American experiment is.

In this light must we consider the 26th of January.

Is a date that marks our origins as a prison colony of another nation truly apt to celebrate all that Australia is today? Is a date that marks the start of the development of modern Australia – and also the dispossession and destruction it required – the best we can come up with? Is it worth the grief and unease it still causes our First Australians?

The short answer is no.

By all means, keep celebrating the 26th of January as “First Fleet Day” to singularly recognise European colonisation of Australia. And keep on having a national day. The existence of an Australia Day is not in dispute.  There is nothing wrong in taking a day to feel proud and to celebrate our nation.

There are far better dates, more symbolic of the independent and inclusive ‘Australia’ that we are, to do so on.

On 1 January, 1901, a federated Australia came into being. Celebrating on New Year’s Day attracts as many detractors as supporters, but the first Tuesday of January would work just as well.

On 29 March, 1901, the Australian people’s Parliament sat in Melbourne for the first time. It was officially opened on 9 May.

On 3 March, 1986, the Australia Acts were passed by our Parliament, severing our final ties with Britain. They received the Royal Assent on 4 December, if you prefer a Yuletide celebration.

On 8 May of every year, the reversed date kinda sounds like ‘mate’.

And on the day that the Australian Republic comes, as some have already suggested, we will have a new date to add to the list.

It is an easy feat to achieve, too. Three councils have already taken it upon themselves to make the decision.

Because the choice is as simple as celebrating a national day that only focuses on a nation from 1788, or one that also includes the nations living here since time immemorial and beyond. To celebrate British colonisation alone as the start of Australia, or to see it as an evolution from what came before. To continue trying to view what we have created here through a narrow lens, one that still causes discomfort to those who were here before us, or not.

And yet, to voice any protest and seek a remedy is seen as an attack on the celebration of Australia itself, an unacceptable infringement on the right to be a patriot. As broadsides from left and right occupy the media cycle, the Prime Minister himself decries calls to change the date as ‘denying history‘. It disappoints him that the 26th of January should be controversial as our national day.

To change the date is not about denying history, but involving more of it. And to brush over how the landing of the First Fleet was actually celebrated; to wholeheartedly endorse its limited worldview over the anxiety of those it overlooks; and in so doing, to ignore the generations of humanity trapped in the dirt beneath our feet and the calls to acknowledge it in a better way, is a more damning denial than any change of a date can muster.