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If we must move Australia Day, let’s not do it for the wrong reasons

Shame over our country’s existence would be the worst possible reason to change the date

I don’t really care about Australia Day. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an Australian who — genuinely — does. Sure, it’s nice to have the public holiday, and no self-respecting Australian is going to turn down an excuse to drink and throw a barbecue, but this isn’t the Fourth of July. It’s not Bastille Day. This isn’t a hallowed date in our national mythos on which we recite the names of our founders and belt out the national anthem as tears roll down our cheeks. The majority of Australians treat it as an excuse to have a party — and rightly so: Australia is worth a party.

But, honest question: do we really need an Australia Day? There’s nothing in our Constitution that requires we celebrate a national day. It wasn’t until 1994 that Australia Day was consistently celebrated as a public holiday. There are other countries that don’t have a national day: neither the United Kingdom as a whole, nor England as a constituent nation of the UK, celebrates a national day (and Scotland, Wales and Ireland celebrate patron saints’ days as proxy national days); nor does Denmark, the country with the oldest national flag in the world.

To be sure, I don’t propose that we abolish Australia Day. I don’t want to get rid of Australia Day; I think it’s fitting that we have a day off work and school to celebrate what a great country we have. I simply point out that a national day is a luxury, not a necessity, and it isn’t treachery to propose moving our national day or abolishing it altogether (I do recognise, though, that it is completely un-Australian to propose depriving Australians of an annual public holiday, whatever it’s for).

Which is why I don’t especially care what date we celebrate Australia Day. 26th January is as good a date as any — and probably the most historically appropriate — but it’s no secret that not all Australians are happy about the current date. Just as 26th January 1788 marks, for most Australians, the beginning of our great country, that date, for many Indigenous Australians, marks the beginning of the end of their possession of this country; “Invasion Day”, as some call it. They mark it as a day of loss and regret — and, fair enough, it would be astonishing if they didn’t, given the sorry history of Australia’s Indigenous people since that date.

If we must move Australia Day to a date that doesn’t offend the sensitivities of an important part of our people, fine. That’s eminently understandable and fair. It’s callous and chauvinistic to suggest, as some who oppose changing the date do, that those sensitivities don’t matter. If your definition of Australians includes Indigenous Australians, as it should, then you can’t disdain their protests about a national day they feel excludes them, if not spits in their face.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that Indigenous Australians are not the only Australians who matter. Most Australians are not Indigenous Australians, and see in 26th January 1788 the beginning of a great country, an event worthy of commemoration and celebration. It’s important not to elevate the voices of Indigenous Australians as though they take precedence over the voices of all other Australians by virtue of whom those voices belong to. Indigenous Australians, being the first Australians, deserve a special place in the Australian community — but, though they (understandably) might resent it, this is our country, our home, too.

It’s this counsel that’s directed at the more radical of the “change-the-date” crowd — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous “allies” — who think Australia Day should be moved, not simply to accommodate the sensitivities of Indigenous Australians, but because they believe 26th January 1788 is a date all Australians should be ashamed of. They would move Australia Day because they view 26th January 1788 principally through the lens of Indigenous suffering and dispossession, as though nothing at all good came of colonisation. Australian history, goes the thesis, is nothing but a hateful chronicle of dispossession, exploitation and racism, and we’re all, by inherited guilt, the culprits. We should all be ashamed we’re even here.

This is abject nonsense, and should be rejected as such. Yes, grievous wrongs were done to this country’s Indigenous people through the process of colonisation. The Indigenous people of this country undeniably lost out from the process of European settlement, and still suffer from their losses today. This is a tragedy, and a black stain on this country’s history.

It’s one thing to acknowledge this, though, and to try to make amends for it, but quite another to assert that we should therefore be ashamed of our country’s existence; that we should wish the British had never arrived on these shores. In almost all respects, Australia is a fantastic success story. It is one of the best places in the world to live, and one of the most peaceful, wealthy, democratic, equal and, yes, tolerant nations in the world. There is so much about this country to be proud of.

This is why shame over our country’s existence would be the worst possible reason to move Australia Day. To move our national day on the grounds that the current date celebrates something shameful and wicked would be tantamount to declaring that we wish our country had never come into being, that we hate our country and think its existence a tragedy. If this is why we must change the date, why even have an Australia Day? Wouldn’t a Shame Day be more fitting?

Thankfully, few Australians think this way. Those who do are vocal, but small in number. That a section of the Indigenous community does think this way shows that not enough has been done to repair the historical damage done to their people. They haven’t been able to share in the wealth of the Australia we have built since colonisation. That needs to change.

If we must move Australia Day, let’s not do it for the wrong reasons. Let’s not do it out of guilt and regret for the foundation of our country. If we must do it, let’s do it because Australia is a fantastic country and we don’t want part of our people to feel excluded from celebrating Australia with the rest of us.

Contra mundum

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