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Solving the problem of Australia Day

By Stephen Chavura - posted Wednesday, 25 January 2017


As predictable as the annual migration of the humpback whales to Hervey Bay is the spirited debate over whether or not the origins of Anglo-European Australia should be celebrated in the weeks leading up to January 26th. Some say that there is a problem with Australia Day, others that there is not.

I am one of those who think there is a problem.

The problem is the tension between celebrating Anglo-European civilisation on this continent and the sorrow felt by many Aboriginal people and their supporters over the negative impact of settlement/invasion on their tribes and cultures.

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On the one hand, many enthusiasts for Australia Day want the Aboriginal critics and their non-Aboriginal advocates to basically “get over” their resentment – some even suggesting that it is based on a false or excessively negative reading of Australian history. On the other hand, many critics of Australia Day wish to see the day scrapped altogether, or would like January 26 commemorated as “Invasion Day” instead.

One thing is certain: there is no approach to the problem of celebrating or not celebrating this nation’s morally ambiguous origins and history that is going to make everybody happy.

I don't want to adjudicate on the accuracy of the blackest interpretations of black-white relations in Australian history, or those who want to, say, minimise the murders and emphasise good (albeit misguided) intentions towards Aborigines. I think we can all agree that historically and in terms of contemporary measures of well-being, Aborigines have fared far worse than non-Aboriginal Australians on average. Even if Aborigines have benefitted from some of the boons of Anglo-European culture and institutions over the past 200 years, they have also been their victims.

It seems to me, then, that a significant degree of sorrow and even resentment is justified – not based only on history, but also on the present condition of so many indigenous people. It’s only natural that those who have been to a large degree the victims of the events celebrated on Australia Day refuse to say “Amen” when we toast our country’s heritage.

Cancelling Australia Day or replacing it with Invasion Day, or something equally lachrymose, would be about as helpful as when the English Puritan Parliament cancelled Christmas from about 1643 to 1660. It would only lead to popular resentment, and galvanise an already strong and ugly quasi-ethnic nationalism that’s emerged in Australia over the past thirty years.

In other words, it just wouldn’t work. The other obvious event for national celebration would be Federation Day, but this happens to fall on January 1st – which is already sacred, albeit in a very secular way.

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But need things be so difficult? Maybe not.

A possible approach to the increasing controversy over Australia Day is both very simple but, I hope, meaningful: we celebrate Australia Day the day after European settlement/invasion, that is, on January 27th.

Delaying the celebration to the 27th will symbolise a moment of silence (the 26th) which symbolises and recognises the destruction upon which modern Australia was built, and which reflects upon the present condition of many Aboriginal people.

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About the Author

Stephen A Chavura is a historian and political theorist. He teaches history and politics at Macquarie University, Campion College, and the Lachlan Macquarie Institute. His work has been published in journals such as the Australian Journal of Political Science, History of European Ideas, and Journal of Religious History. His first book, Tudor Protestant Political Thought, 1547-1603, was published in 2011, and he is working on two other books, one on secularism in Australia (ARC-funded) and another on freedom of speech. He lives in Sydney's Inner West.

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