Should we change the date of Australia Day?

*Originally published on The Age –

It’s that time of year again. January 26 is approaching, so it means another round for the Australia Day debate. Expect the hashtag #changethedate to feature prominently, and likewise, expect the usual rollout of thongs and flag capes.

Meat & Livestock Australia have opened the batting with a new take on the national day. Dubbed the January Campaign, their new ad does not mention Australia Day, but instead tries its hand at showcasing the diversity of Australian society. By not acknowledging the day, one can assume it’s a subtle hint at the need to change the date in response to Indigenous sensitivity.

The fact that greater consideration is being given to Indigenous perspectives is a good thing. There is no debating the utter devastation and upheaval that was inflicted on our first people in the wake of European arrival, and as a nation we should always regret the brutal dispossession that followed first contact.

I understand why an increasing number of people passionately and earnestly call for the nation to change our day of celebration from January 26. But try as I might, I cannot join the chorus.

If the date were to be changed, it would cause more harm than good for Indigenous relations. Rightly or wrongly, it would confirm in the minds of many Australians the Hanson narrative about one culture being elevated above another. Far from encouraging the nation to come to terms with its history, it will only force the most dogmatic “patriots” to dig their heels in further.

Sure, this is more a reflection on those individuals, but the political difficulty of any genuine attempt to change the date would exacerbate rather than pacify tensions in the community, and nobody wins from that.

One could rightly argue that fear of community backlash is not an argument, but it would also be naive to pretend there would not be a visceral and defiant response where many thousands would celebrate the day on such a date anyway, and with increased jingoism at that.

What is often missed in this debate is the difficulty surrounding having any sort of national day at all. When a community is diverse, multicultural and cosmopolitan, can one date ever suitably pacify the sensitivities of every cultural group?

Australia Day is not the only national holiday that invites controversy. The United States’ Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday for Native Americans, given it marked the upheaval of their way of life. Canada’s day, July 1, invites the same debate about the convenient brushing aside of indigenous dispossession for a day of celebration.

However, to take issue with a single date on the basis of historical variables is to reject colonial history in its entirety. As with anything in history, outright condemnation is too simple. When I consider this country’s history, I am indeed sorry for the brutal rape, murder and needless separation of families. I am sorry for the hurt caused by the ignorance of generations past. But I am not sorry for the arrival of the British on January 26.

How could I be? If such an event did not occur, I or my family would not be here. We would not have the country that became home to millions of migrants over the course of more than 200 years. I don’t doubt that recent arrivals also hold affection for the day they received their recognition of citizenship. To hold such sentiment is not to ignore or brush aside the victims of colonisation; rather, it is, somewhat selfishly, being thankful for our personal fortune.

The meaning given to a single date is culturally and socially relative. I doubt Australian republicans find much substance in our annual Queen’s Birthday holiday, and certainly public holidays such as Christmas Day do not represent the entirety of the population. We have Harmony Day, but I doubt most Australians could even tell you the date it falls on. For the record, it’s March 21. The fact is, no single date ever can or will encompass the myriad cultural and social variables enough to be dubbed a true “national” day.

This leads to the obvious question: should we even have a national day at all? That word, national, carries with it connotations of community, togetherness and harmony. The reality is that the annual Australia Day debate and the current campaign for a treaty proves we have never really united as one nation. Not with our Indigenous people at least.

Ultimately, it’s not the date that matters, but the unresolved divisions within our population. January 26 will never be a true day of national celebration for all, but neither will any other date. Some say that January 1, the date of federation, would be ideal. But what of the constitution that failed to dignify our first inhabitants as people?

The best solution I can think of is not to change the date, but to give more scope for reflection rather than blind celebration. Perhaps what is needed is a minute’s silence every Australia Day. We can be thankful for our personal luck here, but we should also remember the reality that with our good fortune came an incredible and tragic cost to a culture that still feels the effects to this day.

It’s not much, but at least it would be an acknowledgement that for all of our successes, the dark chapters of our past are not forgotten.

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