There are very few occasions where I have reflected on Australia Day and what it represents.
Growing up on a farm, few public holidays had any impact on the daily routine, and if they fell during school holidays – with no day off school – they barely registered in our thinking.
The 1990s was the first time I can recall considering the late January public holiday – but we weren’t considering its significance. We were annoyed that the move from a predictable long weekend would be the end of our much-loved events like Cobram’s Peaches’n’Cream and Yarrawonga’s Rockalonga.
In later years, Australia Day has become a marker in the calendar – when schools return, business fires up, and we seriously turn our minds to the year ahead… and a new ad for lamb!
In more recent years there has been a maturing in our reflection on what the day means, celebrates and what it fails to acknowledge.
January 26 doesn’t signal the first time a European or even a British person set foot on Australian soil. The French and Dutch all found our shores and with a modern-day ‘yeah, nah’ moved on.
Captain Cook’s initial reports back to the British were met with a ‘nah’, and only after his death and years later added a ‘yeah’, when the American colonies revolted.
January 26 doesn’t celebrate the day we became Australia – that happened with Federation, on 1 January 1901.
So, we could argue, January 26 marks the day the British claimed some land that became the colony of NSW, that their allies and enemies had passed up, so the British could expand their prison system, and which began a process of dispossession and displacement of the first nations people.
January 26 is a significant date in our nation’s history – but is it the event and date that best captures who we are as a nation? Does it deserve to be our national day?
For many of us, and especially those of us arriving from countries at war, Australia has offered safety, opportunity and a new start – that’s what we are celebrating on Australia Day.
Last week we observed the fifteenth anniversary of the formal apology to the Australia’s Indigenous peoples, particularly the Stolen Generations. This event reinforces that these privileges we celebrate have not been available to or enjoyed by all in our community and especially the first people of this land we call Australia.
So, is there a better event and date to celebrate? In coming years there may be new options but for now if we want convenience, one option could be Citizenship Day. The Act that introduced Australian citizenship began on 26 January – so we could keep our end of January holiday. Unfortunately, the Act’s track-record is less than perfect.
Another option is January 1, Constitution Day or Federation Day. It marks the birth of the Commonwealth of Australia, but more importantly it reminds us that our constitution is a living, breathing document with the ability to change.
In 30 or so pages, 128 sections and with little more than a sentence of detail for most, our Constitution provides a framework, creates the institutions of government, parliament and courts, empowers them to fill in the detail by creating, amending, interpreting, and repealing laws within the boundaries of the framework. As voters, we check these powers at each election.
It was the parliament that gave women (1902) and indigenous Australians (1984) equal voting rights, that abolished the death penalty (1973), that created the concept of Australian citizenship (1949), that introduced conscription (including for boys from 12 years of age) (1909).
The constitution is not perfect – but the authors had the foresight to build in a mechanism that didn’t exist in the British system – called a referendum – that enables our little rule book to be amended.
In 2023 we anticipate casting our vote in the first referendum this century that will enshrine an indigenous voice to parliament in the constitution. This process is a valuable reminder that our constitution provides us with the capacity to acknowledge, learn, correct, include, and unite as a nation – and that’s something worth celebrating on any day.