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Australia day: if you keep picking, it will never get better

By Bob Ryan - posted Monday, 22 January 2018

It strikes me that most Australians are more concerned about the Australia Day holiday than its significance; that being so, it shouldn’t matter what we call the day so long as it’s a holiday.

Although there is a growing desire to change the day from January 26th, I doubt it would be politically easy. It’d be out of character for Aussies to give up a holiday—the Queen’s Birthday (once, the King’s) goes back to 1787, while the First Fleeters were still on their way here.

We might then say that Aussies don’t really mind what day we commemorate whatever each of us wishes to remember, so long as we are assured of a holiday. So let’s look at some worthwhile possibilities for change, keeping in mind the indigenous peoples’ concerns and the Aussie sense of fun.


First, we must accept that cruelty resulted from England’s colonization of Australia. The indigenous peoples argue (perhaps believe) January 26th is a reminder of a cruel invasion of their country. Undoubtedly, there was cruelty—even if by accident in some cases (small pox comes to mind here). Indigenous peoples are offended and hurt by the white fella’s reminder of what happened.

All of that is understandable. The question is: What sort of memorial will satisfy the indigenous peoples and their other-nation supporters, while at the same time, allowing Australians to enjoy their holiday?

As I understand it, some would-be changers want both day and title changed. Others want to retain the day but change the title to, for example, “Invasion Day”. At present, those in favour of the status quo are not offered a clear alternative day/title, so all they can do is defend their position. Thus, we have the same impasse, as was the case (to my recollection) about ten years ago.

Every year, around New Year, someone has another pick at making changes to the holiday’s significance. I’m unsure whether the indigenous peoples want to maintain the rage, as one of our leaders said in another context, or whether they seek some relief from their painful memories. I’ve heard different people speaking along both lines.

However, I ask: am I wrong in suggesting that the hurt suffered by Australia’s indigenous peoples will not be dispelled, perhaps not even assuaged, by any change that might be made? One might, by comparison, change the calendar details on a mother’s tombstone, but the loss of one’s mother would continue to be keenly felt.

But looking towards the light, rather than darkness. Perhaps January 26th might be viewed, not as an insult or denigration but as a memorial to a proud, pre-English nation. In that mindset the present (and coming) generations of indigenous peoples, would have a reminder of what went before. This is not unlike memorials of other wartime suffering—ANZAC Day is another special holiday: “Lest We Forget”. Neither memorial holiday takes away the hurt, but both should evoke respect from all “who mindful of the [once] unhonoured dead” are, by the special holidays, so honoured.


There are currently two outspoken champions of opposite opinion: English born, Tony Abbott, a Queens man and status quo-er, and Australian born R. Luigi Di Natale, who’s for change. I’d like to offer both the prospect of compromise. Surely we can find a day that would make us all smile instead of scowling at each other.

First to represent Tony’s position. He opines that the anti-Australia Day-ers could choose any one of the remaining 364 days that are not Australia Day as their commemorative day off. But Tony was amiss in fact—and an important fact at that: 1788 was a leap year—which affords us that extra day.

Now, there’s the germ of a compromise. Why not make February 29th Australia Day? Then the indigenous peoples will only be reminded of all the horrors inflicted by English settlers once every four years, instead of having to suffer annual remembrances.

Another, broader thought: since the majority wants to retain the holiday, perhaps we might change the date to a month in which we presently have no holiday. February, sometimes March, May, July, August, September and November could be worth a look. That would offer a choice of some 170 weekdays (plus March if Easter falls in April).

There are other worthy contenders for the honour, some of which fall in January. For example, we could choose January 18th: the day of first white settlement actually landing at Botany Bay. On that day, the indigenous people were kind enough to lead the parched Englishmen to “a very fine stream of fresh water”. Surely that’s rapprochement writ large.

Or we could have January 20th, to mark Australia’s first “flasher”. Lt King describes the occasion thus: “by very plain Signs they wanted to know what sex we were, which they explained by pointing where it was distinguishable. As they took us for women, not having our beards grown, I ordered one of our people to undeceive them in this particular when they made a great shout of Admiration.” (I suspect the indigenous peoples would enjoy a joke of this sort at the white fella’s expense.) From the narrative that follows, the natives offered their women “in puris naturalibus”—not even a fig leaf—whose “persons were at our service”. (Rapprochement writ very large.)

Although “possession was taken for His Majesty” on January 26th, a better date for Australia Day might be two days later (the 28th.) when all the convict men were landed. On that day, Australia’s first contingent of builders’ labourers started work. We might even combine it with a Building Workers’ Picnic and arrange special honours for outstanding contributions in all the trades.

There are, however, two better-deserving dates in February: the 3rd (which was Sunday) and 13th, February, that ”beastly month” according to Gilbert’s Pirate King, offers no holiday to Australians, therefore a good month in which to celebrate Australia Day.

On February 3rd, 1788, Governor Phillip read the King’s commission to the assembled First Fleeters: convicts, sailors and admin staff. It is especially important that the King’s directive made it clear that the natives be treated with kindness and consideration; a clause in his instructions that Arthur Phillip was determined to carry though—even at the expense (later) of taking a spear in his thigh.

Furthermore, the Rev Richard Johnson gave his first sermon “on grass” to a numerous, if not quite attentive, congregation. Johnson clearly appreciated his good fortune at being placed in such distressing circumstances as Australia proved to be, for he chose for the title of that sermon, from Psalm 116, verse 12: “What shall I render unto the Lord, for all his benefits towards me?”

February 13th might also be considered a candidate for Australia Day. On that date in 1788, Arthur Phillip took the Oath of Abjuration before Judge Advocate Captain David Collins. Phillip declared in part “that our Sovereign Lord King George is lawful and rightful King of this Realm.” But, while that might bolster the status-quo-ers argument, it would probably irritate the indigenous peoples even more.

It’s still hard to go past February 29th, for reasons stated above.

One could go on with possible dates, but if the inclination to divide rather than reconcile predominates, each will be as divisive as the other. For example, suppose the date was changed to something of which the date-changers approved, surely they wouldn’t find friends among the status quo-ers. To suggest “invasion” day or anything else will not please those who know from history that an “invasion” as it is commonly understood was never intended. Some indigenous Australians would like an extra holiday during which they would mourn the loss of their lands and properties but we really do have enough paid days off work already. Whatever we do, and for whatever reason, let’s sort this thing once and for all and stop picking at it every year, or it will never get better.

There is a compromise that could satisfy both sides of the dispute and not add to the number of national holidays. We might remove what many see as the odium of Australia Day, if we wait until the end of the queen’s reign. Then, after voting for a republic (which we surely will) replace Australia Day with Republic (or Remembrance) Day—a sort of Independence Day.

At the same time, we could replace the queen’s holiday in June with Mabo Day: June 3 (1992), which gives the aborigines their day. Both of these dates can be thought of as emotion-neutral.

Neither would impinge on the existing holiday regime. Which is, after all what most Aussies really care about.

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About the Author

Bob Ryan is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University; his thesis is on Censorship.

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