COMMENT

What does the date really mean to Australians?

PAINFUL: Reconciliation Australia, the national expert body on reconciliation, said it would be “impossible” to unify around 26 January as a national day, saying it was “like asking them to dance on their ancestors’ graves”. PIC: Craig Sillitoe
PAINFUL: Reconciliation Australia, the national expert body on reconciliation, said it would be “impossible” to unify around 26 January as a national day, saying it was “like asking them to dance on their ancestors’ graves”. PIC: Craig Sillitoe

"You don't pretend your birthday was on a different day," Prime Minister Scott Morrison passionately reasoned with Sam Armytage on Sunrise last week.

Morrison was addressing the renewed push to change the date of Australia Day, after Byron Shire Council shifted their official celebrations to 25 January. 

I watched the interview on YouTube while I played catch up on some news. I’d spent the long weekend camping with friends. 

It was Labour Day, or the Queen’s Birthday in Queensland, which was a few hours north of where we camped.

I personally knew the Queen’s Birthday long weekend to fall on the 10 June, being from New South Wales.

Western Australians actually celebrate the Queen’s Birthday on the 24 September, though next year WA will celebrate the Queen’s Birthday on the 30 September. 

Queensland, meanwhile, will be celebrating the Queen’s Birthday on October 7 in 2019, mixing it up a little. But I digress. 

I nodded along sagely when Morrison declared that citizenship ceremonies “should not be used as a political football”.

Of course – citizenship ceremonies should not be seen as an opportunity to punish council or community. They’re too important, too symbolic, to be reduced to a kickball in political game playing.

Astoundingly, Morrison went on to backflip in the very next breath as he reinforced that Byron Shire Council had been punished by the Commonwealth for changing their date of celebration. 

If that’s not a sin bin call, what is? 

If there’s any testament to how little this date actually signifies to those barracking to protect it, it’s the misinformation circulating about what the date actually represents. 

Morrison speaks of ‘modern’ Australia’s birthday, but that date surely falls on 1 January, the date of Federation. January 26, of course, marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove in 1788.

Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie also threw her weight behind protecting the date in an interview on Sky News.

McKenzie declared January 26 the day “the course of our nation changed forever. When Captain Cook stepped ashore.”

That would have truly been a sight to behold, Captain Cook stepping ashore Botany Bay in 1788. Especially as he had been dead for nine years at that point.

In any case, it wasn’t a date given much national significance for the next 206 years. One poster from 1915 features a proud digger and reads ‘What are YOU doing for Australia Day? July 30, 1915’.

It wasn’t until 1994 that January 26 became a national holiday for the first time, a short 24 years ago. Various alternative dates have been suggested recently, including Waleed Aly’s suggestion of March 2.

That marks the date in 1986 when the Australia Act was signed by then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Queen Elizabeth, solidifying the birth of our fully fledged nation as independent and sovereign. 

Or, rather than holding Australia Day on a fixed date, we could hold it on the second Monday of January each year. Mother’s Day is routinely celebrated on the second Sunday of May and that works fine. 

A separate day does nothing to remediate the fact that we celebrate a day inextricably marked as traumatic to almost 4 percent, or at least 650,000, of our population.

Seemingly without party consultation, public consultation or indeed much thought at all, Morrison instead floated the idea of a separate day to recognise Indigenous Australians. How this would differ from NAIDOC Week, Reconciliation Day and National Sorry Day is anyone’s guess, and of course misses the point completely. 

The point is not that Indigenous Australians want more days of recognition in the calendar. Rather, that they would prefer if the nation didn’t celebrate a day that marked the beginning of a genocide of the First Peoples. 

January 26 is a divisive commemoration of colonialism that marked the beginning of 200 years of displacement, pain and murder of our sacred indigenous population. 

A separate day does nothing to remediate the fact that we celebrate a day inextricably marked as traumatic to almost 4 percent, or at least 650,000, of our population.

It would, however, add more symbolic segregation to a population that is already so definitively split down the middle of ‘black’ and ‘white’. It’s tokenism, plain and simple. 

“And from [1788] on, we've built an incredibly successful society, best multicultural society in the world,” Morrison went on to postulate on Sunrise.

With as many as 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island massacres now recorded, an entire Stolen Generation and a shorter life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, poorer health and lower levels of education and employment, I’m not sure how ‘successful’ you could call the last two centuries for Indigenous Australians.

That Morrison characterises this bloody history of injustice as ‘a few scars and… some mistakes… things that you could have done better’ is an insult. 

“You don’t have to tear down one group to raise up another,” Morrison said. I couldn’t agree more, though not in the way Morrison meant it. 

Emma Elsworthy is a Fairfax journalist.