If national unity and harmony are the goals for Australia’s national day, then January 26 is no longer, if it ever was, fit for purpose. It does not meet its objective and, no matter how much it “disappoints” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, we need to re-think Australia Day.
When considered in the context of the national and global dilemmas governments and their leaders deal with every day, Australia’s national day problem is minor. There are no diabolically complex challenges, as there are in climate change for example, with its multitude of contributors and potential technical and policy solutions and where the future of humanity depends on governments getting it right.
The Australia Day problem is relatively easy to understand and to address.
Within the ranks of the masses Turnbull is attempting to bludgeon into a state of enforced happiness on January 26, there is a large and growing group for whom the 26th is not a day on which they can, or want to, celebrate.
As has been expressed very eloquently these past few weeks by a range of Indigenous and other community leaders, for thousands of Australians the day represents dispossession and loss — of people, traditions, languages and an entire way of life. It is a day of pain, and of mourning. Being expected to celebrate on such a day only adds to that pain. For many Australians, celebrating Australia Day on January 26 is beyond insensitive, it is cruel.
Supporting those who feel that loss directly is a growing number of people who recognise the ongoing pain the current model causes to Australia’s First Peoples, and want to see that change. There are hundreds of thousands of them and they marched in solidarity with their fellow Australians in great number on the streets of Australia this January.
Invasion Day rally
I was one of the estimated 60,000 people — one for every year Indigenous Australians lived on and in harmony with the land we now occupy — who marched in Melbourne this year. I’ve been to dozens of rallies, of all sorts. I’ve been up close and personal with angry construction workers and smelt the intensity of their special brand of collective power. I’ve also wandered calmly on Long Walks or with rainbow flags, with Mums pushing babies in strollers and signing songs.
The mood on January 26 had some elements of both of these, but felt like neither. It was not angry and belligerent, nor was it peaceful and patient. It was a mood of determination, and resilience; of survival and revival.
It was hot, close and fittingly uncomfortable. The hot, heavy air carried steely cold messages over the heads of thousands of white, black, young, old, rich and poor Australians. They were messages about injustices, historical and ongoing; about the pain that so many First Nations Peoples feel every day, but feel most intently on this one. It was impossible to stand amidst the sea of black red and yellow and not feel the pain of the sheer bastardry of a system that not only celebrates itself on such a day, but which then subjects those who object to the indignity of indifference, belittlement and derision.
So, “the problem” we have as a country with this whole national day thing is that the current date is broken, and can’t be made unbroken. So far, the government has tried to ignore it, dismissing protestors as quickly and carelessly as it dismissed the Reconciliation Council’s Statement from the Heart last year.
When forced to acknowledge that there might be an issue, the government opted to throw a few handfuls of patriotic rhetoric at it while demanding unity from the masses. It was a futile and empty approach of course, because you can’t force or silence or subdue people into unity, anymore than you can force people into being happy. They are either united and happy or they are not, and while some may not like it, in Australia, on this issue, people are not!
Change the date
If that is the problem, what is the solution? Just as the Indigenous community have identified the problem that needs fixing, the work of finding a solution has already been done too: change the date. It should be easy, but for some people the very idea is a red rag to a bull.
In changing the date, we have a chance to show the Indigenous community that they have been heard, that their pain is recognised and understood, and to genuinely show some long overdue respect to the Australia’s First Peoples. A change to the date of Australia Day would be a chance to simultaneously stop some of the pain experienced by Indigenous Australians and stop the division around Australia Day itself.
There is no downside to changing the date. Some people say they like the public holiday and like things how they are, but that is not a real reason. Easter moves around with the lunar cycle and people cope. In fact, despite the reams of newspaper copy devoted to the issue this year, no compelling, persuasive or even rational arguments have been offered to not change the date. Turnbull is disappointed we are having this conversation, but that’s about the extent of the No case.
There are common assertions from opponents of change, but these are not arguments as such. These include the age old one that there are more important Indigenous-related issues to focus on and/or that a change will not impact these other challenges — like health, education, housing and incarceration rates. The date change is not intended to do these things, and is not an either/or proposition in terms of effort or government budget allocations.
When the non-Indigenous community pursues a key social justice issue, such as equal marriage, the costs are not thought of as being those that would otherwise be allocated to the health or welfare budget. Important issues, celebrations and commemorations are not postponed within the non-Indigenous community until every social ill is remedied. This is a particularly frustrating attitude, and one apparently only reserved for Indigenous issues.
The debate gets ugly
Just as mainstream media has been devoid of arguments to keep the date, social media interactions on the issue have been completely devoid of respect, tolerance and nuance. The bitterness, racism, ignorance and associated bile that spews out in the comments sections of the major papers whenever the change the date campaign or Invasion Day protests are covered is genuinely shocking, even for this old keyboard warrior.
In the lead up to the marriage equality survey last year, the need for respectful debate was identified early in the process as being key to the success of the campaign and vital for maintaining and even improving levels of community understanding and harmony. To a large extent, it worked, with the issue discussed and debated in a generally civil and respectful way, even online.
Not so with this debate. It is ugly out there and some political leadership, sadly lacking at present, from across the spectrum, is required to address it. There needs to be a respectful, inclusive and rational debate about how, what, when, and if at all, we collectively celebrate a national day. The government needs to own this change, build a process around it and develop a way forward in consultation with leaders of Australia’s Indigenous communities.
The scale of the turn-out for Invasion Day rallies, especially by non-Indigenous Australians, is an unmistakeable signal that this issue has changed shape. It has morphed from a fringe issue into an unavoidable, mainstream one, which has adhered itself to the Australian psyche and which will, happily, only gather momentum from here.
Celebrating Australia Day on January 26 and having a national day of unity have now clearly defined themselves as mutually exclusive concepts. If the marches this year have done nothing else, they have served to take at least one option off the table — status quo maintenance. If the government is serious about changing Australia Day into a day that can genuinely unite all Australians, Turnbull must begin a process of change.
If nothing changes, nothing changes.