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Australia Day: when should we celebrate?

By Russell Grenning - posted Friday, 19 January 2018


The announcement by the Federal Greens Leader Senator Richard Di Natale that the party's local authority councillors will spearhead the campaign to change the date of Australia Day from 26 January raises one important question: if not 26 January, then when?

Four Councils – Freemantle in Western Australia and Moreland, Darebin and Yarra Councils in Victoria – have stopped official celebrations on January 26 saying that this day, commemorating the landing of the First Fleet at Port Jackson, is offensive to indigenous people as it marks, for them, Invasion Day.

Freemantle was the first Council to dump Australia Day and last year had its official celebration "One Day in Freo" Day on 28 January. Yet, inexplicably, there is no mention currently at all on its website of any similar celebration this year although seven events are listed for 26 January including a concert called "AC/DC Australia Day Tribute Party". The decision to cancel Australia Day celebrations split the community with businesses coming together to fund the traditional fireworks display.

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The Moreland Council website provides an explanation about why they took their decision.

"Celebrations held on January 26 are known to have a disproportionately negative impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, many of whom experience the day as a sad and painful day. Council is now an active member of the Change the Date Campaign, along with the cities of Darebin and Yarra, to encourage the Federal Government to find another day that will bring all Australians together to celebrate our country," the announcement says.

However and very graciously the Council allows that "Council's decision not to recognise January 26 as a day of celebration does not impact the way our residents personally choose to spend the day." No doubt that concession by the Council was very gratefully received by residents.

However Moreland hasn't gone the full monty unlike Freemantle, Darebin and Yarra Councils and renounced its citizenship ceremonies on 26 January. The three other Councils who totally abolished every mention of Australia Day on 26 January were stripped by the Federal Government of their authority to hold citizenship ceremonies. Just how celebratory and festive the citizenship ceremony in Moreland will be on January 26 remains to be seen.

In Sydney, the Inner West Council flirted with the idea of scrubbing Australia Day celebrations but instead opted to offer additional citizenship celebrations during NAIDOC Week (8 – 15 July) which celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

The Change the Date Campaign which The Greens have launched as an important and major priority campaign in 2018 only says that the celebration should be on "another date". This is not indentified and it seems nobody in The Greens or their allies seem to think that providing an alternative date is the least bit important.

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According to Senator Di Natale, "All Australians want a day on which we can come together and to celebrate our wonderfully diverse, open and free society but January 26 is not that day. It's time we stopped papering over an issue that for two hundred years has been so divisive and painful for so many of our citizens."

Obviously, Senator Di Natale has no problem at all with acknowledging that Australia is a "wonderfully diverse, open and free society" so how that can be reconciled to his claim that Australia Day celebrations have been "so divisive and painful for many of our citizens" is problematic to say the least.

Quite apart from the fact that the Federal Government strongly opposes changing the date and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is reluctant to endorse any change, several ALP MPs have come out in support of a change. Various suggestions have been made for a new date from some significant event in the World War 11 Pacific campaign or the date (27 May) of the overwhelmingly successful 1967 referendum which marked the beginning of improved government services for indigenous people.

For a change in Australia Day to be implemented it would not only require the approval of the Federal Government but of all States and Territories as well.

Our public holidays are a patchwork quilt as these days are set by State and Territory Governments. For example, Western Australia Day will be celebrated as a public holiday on June 4 but this could hardly be seen as appropriate for the Change the Date Campaign as its commemorates the foundation of a British colony in 1829. Western Australia has broken with the rest of the country which celebrates the sovereign's birthday on June 11 and moved its Queen's Birthday holiday to September/October. Either date must be a cause for some subdued mirth in the Royal Family as Her Majesty's birthday is actually April 21. Queensland Day is June 6 which commemorates the creation of a separate colony in 1859 but the mean old State Government has never ever declared it a public holiday. Victoria Day is 1 July commemorating the 1851 day when it became a separate colony and it isn't a public holiday either.

The problem faced by the Change the Date campaigners is that whatever alternative date is chosen it would be welcomed by some and derided by others. It would probably face the same fate as the ill-fated Republic referendum in 1999 when a major reason for that failure was a failure by pro-republic campaigners to agree on how a future President would be elected or selected.

Countries around the world have always had problems deciding what should be the national day. Germany prior to 1871 was a collection of often pocket handkerchief kingdoms and dukedoms which all had their separate celebrations based on local factors, between 1871 and 1918 was an Empire, from 1918 to 1933 was the Weimar Republic, from 1933 to 1945 the Third Reich, from 1945 to 1954 occupied by Allied troops, from 1954 to 1990 was two countries (Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic) and since 1990 as a unified republic.

Over its chequered history there have understandably been several national days.

The new unified republic originally considered having November 9 – the day the Berlin Wall came down – as its new national day until somebody remembered that this was the date of the first major Nazi pogrom against its Jewish citizens in 1938 and the failed coup by Hitler in 1923. So October 3 was chosen as it was the day the communist German Democratic Republic bowed to the inevitable in 1990 and voted itself out of existence.

Some Jewish citizens objected to that date as, on that day in 1941, all elderly Jewish men in the Ukraine were murdered and six synagogues in Paris were blown up, both by the Nazis. But it was delicately pointed out that simply no day of the year between 1933 and 1945 had been good days for Germany's Jews.

Perhaps Melbourne Cup Day – the first Tuesday in November – could be adopted by the Change the Date crowd as this is the day when a race stops the nation. Most of us like to celebrate with a flutter and it is already a holiday in Victoria.

But, then again, the anti-gambling puritans would be unhappy. Oh dear, another divisive day.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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