Australia is a fantastic place to live and it is only right that we have a national celebration every year. It is becoming increasing clear, however, that 26 January is unsustainable as the date of our national holiday. Rather than a unifying occasion, Australia Day is divided between those who believe it should be a day of pride and those who think it should be a day of solemn reflection
Every year many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians insist that 26 January is a day of mourning and sorrow. Just as it commemorates the arrival of the first British colonists, it also represents the beginning of Indigenous dispossession. The real irony is that historically, Australia Day has never really been about Australia but about Britishness. While other nations celebrate their day of independence, we celebrate the day the flag of a foreign country was planted on these shores.
Australia Day’s 1888 centenary was undoubtedly a celebration of Britishness. The imposing statue of Victoria near Hyde Park was unveiled and the Queen was cheered and toasted at banquets and celebration services all over Sydney. With Union Flags waving, food and tobacco was given to the poor as proud colonists sang God Save the Queen. When a radical politician asked if something should be done for the Aborigines, Sir Henry Parkes curtly replied, ‘and remind them that we have robbed them?’
A century later there was an even larger celebration but again it was celebration of Britishness and White Australia. The focal point of the 1988 bicentenary was not Australian achievements but the visit from Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales and our future king. While the media fawned over the visiting royals, this time Aboriginal voices could not be silenced. Some 40 000 protesters – the largest since the Vietnam moratorium – declared that Australia Day was to them, Invasion Day.
Australia is stuck now in an awkward stalemate where we have a national holiday that people feel increasingly uncomfortable about celebrating. This cultural unease came to the fore when retail giants Aldi and Big W decided to remove Australia Day shirts with the slogan “Australia: Est 1788”. There is a strange contradiction here. If the shirts are offensive then surely the official holiday commemorating 26 January 1788 is more so.
There have been many calls to change the date of Australia Day. Mick Dodson and Chris Bourke have been two of the most articulate voices for change. 26 January is an important date for Australia, they argue, but it is not right to celebrate a day that causes so much pain for so many. The problem, however, is when to change it to. The obvious choice would be the anniversary of Federation but falling on 1 January it is not practical.
The creation of an Australian republic holds the key to Australia Day. Commemorating the day we become a republic will allow us to celebrate everything that is laudable about our nation without the ghosts of colonisation and dispossession. Our history cannot be changed and we should honestly reflect on the mistakes of the past but our day of celebration should be a reminder of what we have achieved and what we can be proud of.
The creation and celebration of an Australian republic will allow us to begin a new national story, a story of inclusion and respect. The republic will unify all Australians because it will not favour or privilege one group over another. For Indigenous Australians, those of British heritage or immigrants from around the world, Republic Day includes all who call Australia home.
26 January will always have great significance but the creation of a free republic built on the principles or equality, inclusion and a fair go, would be something to be truly proud of. A nation honest enough to face its past wrongs but brave enough to stand on its own two feet, I’ll celebrate that any day of the year!