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Australia day: if you keep picking, it will never get better

By Bob Ryan - posted Monday, 22 January 2018


It strikes me that most Australians are more concerned about the Australia Day holiday than its significance; that being so, it shouldn’t matter what we call the day so long as it’s a holiday.

Although there is a growing desire to change the day from January 26th, I doubt it would be politically easy. It’d be out of character for Aussies to give up a holiday—the Queen’s Birthday (once, the King’s) goes back to 1787, while the First Fleeters were still on their way here.

We might then say that Aussies don’t really mind what day we commemorate whatever each of us wishes to remember, so long as we are assured of a holiday. So let’s look at some worthwhile possibilities for change, keeping in mind the indigenous peoples’ concerns and the Aussie sense of fun.

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First, we must accept that cruelty resulted from England’s colonization of Australia. The indigenous peoples argue (perhaps believe) January 26th is a reminder of a cruel invasion of their country. Undoubtedly, there was cruelty—even if by accident in some cases (small pox comes to mind here). Indigenous peoples are offended and hurt by the white fella’s reminder of what happened.

All of that is understandable. The question is: What sort of memorial will satisfy the indigenous peoples and their other-nation supporters, while at the same time, allowing Australians to enjoy their holiday?

As I understand it, some would-be changers want both day and title changed. Others want to retain the day but change the title to, for example, “Invasion Day”. At present, those in favour of the status quo are not offered a clear alternative day/title, so all they can do is defend their position. Thus, we have the same impasse, as was the case (to my recollection) about ten years ago.

Every year, around New Year, someone has another pick at making changes to the holiday’s significance. I’m unsure whether the indigenous peoples want to maintain the rage, as one of our leaders said in another context, or whether they seek some relief from their painful memories. I’ve heard different people speaking along both lines.

However, I ask: am I wrong in suggesting that the hurt suffered by Australia’s indigenous peoples will not be dispelled, perhaps not even assuaged, by any change that might be made? One might, by comparison, change the calendar details on a mother’s tombstone, but the loss of one’s mother would continue to be keenly felt.

But looking towards the light, rather than darkness. Perhaps January 26th might be viewed, not as an insult or denigration but as a memorial to a proud, pre-English nation. In that mindset the present (and coming) generations of indigenous peoples, would have a reminder of what went before. This is not unlike memorials of other wartime suffering—ANZAC Day is another special holiday: “Lest We Forget”. Neither memorial holiday takes away the hurt, but both should evoke respect from all “who mindful of the [once] unhonoured dead” are, by the special holidays, so honoured.

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There are currently two outspoken champions of opposite opinion: English born, Tony Abbott, a Queens man and status quo-er, and Australian born R. Luigi Di Natale, who’s for change. I’d like to offer both the prospect of compromise. Surely we can find a day that would make us all smile instead of scowling at each other.

First to represent Tony’s position. He opines that the anti-Australia Day-ers could choose any one of the remaining 364 days that are not Australia Day as their commemorative day off. But Tony was amiss in fact—and an important fact at that: 1788 was a leap year—which affords us that extra day.

Now, there’s the germ of a compromise. Why not make February 29th Australia Day? Then the indigenous peoples will only be reminded of all the horrors inflicted by English settlers once every four years, instead of having to suffer annual remembrances.

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About the Author

Bob Ryan is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University; his thesis is on Censorship.

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