Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Australia Day: when would you like it?

Do we need to change the date of Australia Day?

Fifty-six per cent of Australians don't mind when it's held, just so long as there is a national day of celebration.

At least that’s the finding of a poll conducted by The Australia Institute.

Interestingly, less than half of the respondents identified the arrival of the First Fleet as the reason why January 26 is the current date. (Actually, they’d arrived earlier in the week at Botany Bay but found it unsuitable…) Almost half of those surveyed believe Australia Day should not be on a day that is offensive to Indigenous Australians.

Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alan Tudge said the lack of knowledge about the historical reasons for January 26 showed a need for better education and rejected calls for the date of Australia Day to change.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale, took the poll as an endorsement for his view that the date should be changed, but Australia Institute deputy director Ebony Bennett said no clear answer had emerged from the poll about an alternative date.

For some, there are many other issues which we need to address first: energy prices, jobs and economic growth, the NBN, cyber-security... For many, there’s plenty of reason to celebrate whatever the day - the food, the drink, the sun, the bush and the cultural diversity.

But 26 January marks the date the first fleet arrived in Sydney Cove and set up the first permanent European settlement, marking the first step on the road to nationhood. Is it all just a misunderstanding?

If there’s any hope of a constructive outcome to the discussion, agreement on an alternative date - or perhaps an alternative reason - for the day is needed.

So here are what seem to be the realistic options; alternative days and stories to celebrate our great nation, days we can all be proud of.

1 January - Federation

On 1 January 1901, the six British self-governing colonies - Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia (by the skin of its teeth) - united to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

Really this is the obvious alternative. It is the point when Australia as the political entity we know it today began.

The event was celebrated in Sydney, where 500 000 people lined the route of the 'Great Inaugural Procession' leading from the Domain to Centennial Park. Over 100 000 spectators witnessed Lord Hopetoun being sworn-in as Australia's first Governor-General. He then proclaimed the Commonwealth of Australia and swore-in the Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, and his ministry.

The year before, following a constitutional convention and a series of referenda, delegates from the colonies met Joseph Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in London. Negotiations resulted in a final version of the Constitution Bill which was passed by the British Parliament. Queen Victoria gave her assent on 9 July 1900. In the same month, a referendum was held in Western Australia and the 'federationists' were victorious. A proclamation was signed by the Queen on 17 September 1900 declaring that on 1 January 1901 the six colonies would be united under the name of Commonwealth of Australia. Lord Hopetoun was appointed Governor General and on 31 December 1900, he commissioned the first Commonwealth Ministry, headed by Edmund Barton.

As an aside, apparently, New South Wales premier Henry Parkes in celebrating the centenary of the Colony in 1888 considered renaming it Australia! Parkes took a breath and decided not to so and embraced the idea of creating a federation of all of continents colonies. Either way, he was going to be the Father of Australia!

So, what’s the objection to this date?  Unfortunately, 1 January is also New Year's Day. So, it might not be ideal for us to commemorate our country when we are busy heralding the new year – or perhaps recovering from the heralding.

So, while it might be the right event to commemorate it happened on an inconvenient date.

1 January 1901. 100 000 people witnessed the ceremony in Centennial Park, Sydney when Australia was declared a nation. National Library of Australia, album 329/51.

7 February – Establishment of the first Australian Colony

This one has not been proposed by any group I’m aware of. See what you think. 

I’ve written about it before. It’s true that something different did begin in 1788, so perhaps that is worth acknowledging. Nobody called the land ‘Australia’ at that stage. ‘Terra Australis’ or ‘New Holland’ were used and it was later that Mathew Flinders suggested ‘Australia’ as less of a mouthful.

Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales, became aware of Flinders' preference for the name Australia and used it in his dispatches to England. In 1817 he recommended to the Colonial Office that it be officially adopted and in 1824 British Admiralty agreed that the continent (not the Colony) should be known as Australia.

The Colony was New South Wales and it covered most of what would become Australia, except for Western Australia.

Why is it better than 26 January?  

It was the day Arthur Phillip was formally proclaimed Governor of the Colony. It had taken two weeks to get everyone off the ships and establish a settlement. Phillip’s instructions were quite clear. Amongst them, he was to ‘endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all [the King’s] subjects to live in amity and kindness with them.’ 

Translation: talk to the locals, become friends and make sure the people under your command do the same.

These were worthy aims, and worth remembering as such. Subsequent failure to live up to them underlines their idealism - and wisdom.

Would you seriously consider this date? A minor benefit is that it’s still in the summer!

An interesting legal question is the issue of recognition of the indigenous peoples. Philip’s job description implies interesting ideas; 

1 – there were people here (seems obvious), 

2 – he was not governing them but was to seek good relations with them,

3 - it could have been the basis for some kind of understanding – or possibly even a treaty. Instead, misunderstanding overtook good intentions (though Philip himself took efforts to restore goodwill) and the eventual Constitution could be seen as continuing to not seek governance of indigenous people.

The situation became a lost opportunity on the issue of indigenous relations.

By 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Colony indigenous Australians began to publicly characterise 26 January as invasion day but following this, there were various points of progress, without a rethink of 1788.

The Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals)1967 provided for a referendum to amend section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution and repeal section 127 giving the Commonwealth the power to make laws regarding Aboriginals and ordering that Aboriginals be counted in the census. The referendum was approved by the Australian population and enabled the Commonwealth to accept wider but not exclusive responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. This was a significant step along the path to reconciliation.

This was more consistent with Philip’s brief than what had evolved without reflective thought.

With regard to indigenous relations, 7 February could celebrate the best of intentions which in spite of setbacks has managed to shine through and continues to shine as a set of visionary principles in all areas of life including indigenous affairs. The ideals ‘amity and kindness’ of are entirely consistent with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples.

7 February: a better memorial for Australia - and Governor Philip.
Image via Wikipedia.

1 March – Australia starts operating…

This is the anniversary of the first Commonwealth Government taking control of Australia.

Former federal minister Ian Macfarlane of Groom, in Toowoomba, Queensland has backed calls to celebrate our nation on this day. It would mark the day Australia's first government began operating after Federation in 1901. ‘It's the day that represents Australians coming together as one nation under one government’, Macfarlane said.

An added bonus? It's still in summer and isn't already a public holiday like January 1 – because Australia is so great it deserves its own special day separate to New Year's Day.

The argument against it is that it has no imagination to it and there was no significant public ceremony accompanying it. A summer holiday is important but it's not the only important thing.

9 May – The Opening of the First Australian Parliament

The First Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia was opened at the Melbourne Exhibition Building on 9 May 1901.

The new King of England, Edward VII, sent his son and heir, the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V), to Australia as his representative. The Duke drove through Melbourne streets lined with cheering crowds to the Exhibition Building, where he declared the Parliament open in front of 12 000 guests.

At 11.30 am, the senators-elect assembled on a low platform in front of a dais in the Main Hall of the Exhibition Building. The Duke and the Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, and their parties entered at 12 noon and ascended the dais. The elected members of the House of Representatives, waiting in the western nave, were called by the Usher of the Black Rod and took their places next to the senators.

The Clerk of the Parliaments read the Letters Patent of King Edward VII empowering the Duke to open the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Duke then addressed the parliamentarians, saying that his father was moved by the generous aid offered by the Australian colonies in the South African war, and in service in China, and expressing the King’s ‘thankfulness and heartfelt satisfaction [at] the completion of that political union of which this Parliament is the embodiment.’ The Duke declared the Parliament open; there was a fanfare of trumpets, and a cable message from the King was read out. Lord Hopetoun administered an oath of allegiance to each of the senators and members, while they remained in their places.

The Melbourne Argus reported the following day that: ‘The ceremony was marked by the splendor and solemn impressiveness which befitted its historic importance. By the hand of Royalty, in the presence of the greatest concourse of people that Australia has seen in one building, and with splendid pomp and ceremonial, the legislative machinery of the Commonwealth was yesterday set in motion.’

This was a big day of celebration and would compete with 1 January as a logical day for national celebration. It has the ‘advantage' of not already being a public holiday. Macfarlane dismissed this option ‘because it’s way too cold for a beach or pool party’.  


The First Parliament was opened in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne, on 9 May 1901 with 12,000 guests and thousands more cheering the procession. Image: Senate Resource Centre

1 September - Wattle Day

Wattle Day is a day of celebration in Australia on the first day of September each year, which is the official start of the Australian spring. This is the time when many Acacia species ('wattles' in Australia), are in flower. Many people wear a sprig of the flowers and leaves to celebrate the day.

Australia's national floral emblem is the Golden Wattle. It has been witness to the whole of the Australian story. It has been in the land for more than 30 million years and has welcomed us all – Aboriginal, colonials, post-war and 21st-century migrants. It has no historical baggage. It is our colours – the green and gold.

Could Wattle Day resolve the conflict around an Australia Day celebrated on 26 January? National Wattle Day was officially proclaimed 25 years ago. Could it work with Australia Day to celebrate Australia, the land, the people and the nation? Terry Fewtrell, President of the Wattle Day Association, says: ‘National Wattle Day would not compete with Australia Day, rather it would complete Australia Day. It would do what Wattle has always done – unite us.’

These sentiments are worthy but the date itself is not significant. It has evolved out of a Tasmanian celebration and certainly had general acceptance in the nineteenth century but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough for a celebration of nationhood.

It's a worthy festival of Australian spring and unity. It might be a pair but it's not a replacement Australia Day.


As far as I can see there are no other serious contenders.

Various other days have been suggested which seem to match the sentiment that any day could be ‘Australia Day’. However, these either have no national significance or commemorate some specific event which probably continue to be worth celebrating in their own right. ANZAC Day is the obvious one in this category as are other days that mark progress points in the nation's development.

Which one would you vote for?

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