Monday, 26 January 2009

Invasion Day

It's come around once again to January 26th, the day Australia celebrates it's national day. For those not born in the land down under, it might be asked what is so special about that date. The answer is that in 1788 a British Captain by the name of Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney Cove and established a British Colony there. As could be imagined, having this day still as the day to celebrate Australia is upsetting for descendants of the native population who have been here for much longer than humans have lived in England. And to me that's understandable, it's a celebration of an establishment of a British colony. Is that reason enough to change the date to something more fitting of the multicultural situation the country is in now?

A reason to change
Australia began last century as a Federation of colonies, a means to govern itself through democratic means without splitting entirely from England. As such we are still part of the diminishing Commonwealth that really now is nothing more than a token of history. We don't need to be part of Britain, we are completely autonomous, and even though the queen can exercise executive power here any attempt to do so would in effect sever the ability to exercise those powers. The queen is our queen technically, but limited to coinage and brown-nosing by our current prime minister.

The date for federation would be a far better date for a more united Australia if not for one flaw: it's new years day and already a significant date on our calendar. Other significant dates in our history include: May 27th 1967, the day a referendum was held to make sure aboriginals would not be discriminated against (came into effect on August 10th of the same year.) March 3rd 1986, where British legislative power over Australian states ended. While these events are significant to the state of Australia as it is now, they aren't anywhere near the impact of date needed to make a compelling argument to shift the date.

One possibility for the future is a republic. It's going to be inevitable that Australia becomes completely separate from the Commonwealth and elects it's own head of state. When that is will remain to be seen, but really it's a perfect opportunity to move the focus away from a controversial and colonial date to something that unites the independent and self-deterministic qualities that Australia Day is supposed to represent. My guess is that Australia will remain part of the Commonwealth for as long as the Queen is in power, the change of power to Prince Charles will spur the end of an era and give gravitation to the notion of Australian independence.

Staying the same
The meaning of any idea is never static, symbols and gestures change as a society changes. Australia may have been founded 221 years ago as a British colony to allow for housing prisoners, but that is not what the country is today. Yet it's that date where we celebrate where the country is now, Australia Day today is a celebration of freedom and dignity that is there for all Australians regardless of heritage or ethnicity. Whether one was born here or has migrated, this day now encompasses all people from all walks of life.

I'd argue that to most the date doesn't matter for the historical event that happened on this day in 1788, rather because of what happens on this day every single year in the lifetimes of almost everyone who is alive today. It's been celebrated in every state since 1935 and became a national public holiday in 1946. For most people who live in Australia today, this day has always been the day to celebrate this nation.

There's no doubt in my mind that aboriginals need to be recognised for their part in Australian history, the Eurocentric holidays that litter our calendar don't highlight the Australian persona as they should. I live in Canberra where we at least have one public holiday for the city's identity and another for the sake of a horse race in Melbourne, but really our public holidays are still very much a remnant of our British past. I wonder how many people would care if the June long weekend holiday was changed from being the Queen's birthday to coincide with the Mabo decision (June 3 1992), or shifted a couple of weeks earlier to coincide with the referendum on Aboriginal rights. Would that be enough though to satisfy the criticism of using "invasion day" as the date of the national holiday?

A difficult dilemma
Personally I don't know where I stand on the issue, I have no particular fondness for January 26th 1788 and as I staunch supporter of an Australian Republic, I don't see the need to celebrate Australia Day on January 26th. But on the same token the date for me has always been that way and changing it would be entirely impractical, not to mention there is no significant candidate to replace the day as yet. My gut feeling is that there needs to be more done to recognise the legitimacy of aboriginal history on the great southern land, and to have a day that truly unites Australia we need to become a republic. It's hard to craft a true national identity that encompasses the multicultural nature of the country without first shaking off the shackles of 18th century British colonialism. Until such time, more efforts need to be made to help the reconciliation process; both to recognise the past oppression of the more unfavourable policies and actions committed against Aboriginal and non-white people, and to offer a path of true reconciliation that gives all Australians a reason to be proud.

Time changes symbols and ideas, society has already shifted in it's thought process and will continue to shift in the future. The inevitability of a shift away from what is today will occur just as today is a shift away from the past. Nothing is static, though if there is the capacity to improve through actions the hastening of that process to bring a sense of equality among all, then surely there is reason for a course of action to do so. Sometimes it takes gestures like saying sorry, offering equality and ending discrimination all in a legal sense to allow for true reconciliation to begin. It seems unaustralian not to.


Reasonably Aaron said...

An Australian "Martin Luthur King Day" would be a nice symbolic gesture. Rudd started the ball rolling on Feb 12 with "Sorry" (Could this be Sorry Day?). Pity Feb 12 isn't a "nice date" for holidays...

Danny said...

I hope you get your Australian Republic. I think that would be great. I don't know much about Australia, but I figure you all can take care of yourselfs. Anyways, if anyone messes with you guys, I'm sure that we would be helping you. I mean, Americans love Australians.