31 January 2009

In history's page

Australia Day should remain as 26 January because it is a focus for debate on Aboriginal issues, by Aborigines and non-Aborigines alike. It serves a similar function to Anzac Day in this regard, and the fact that it makes some uncomfortable is no reason to avoid the issue.

Australia Day used to be a grab-bag celebration of all things Aussie: and so Don Bradman shared the stage with Joan Sutherland, John(ny) Farnham, and the occasional scientist who can explain in clear English why their field matters. Offstage, barbecues and backyard sport and prangs on the freeways heading into the major cities presaged the effective start of the working year. For many Australia Day is still like that, and insofar as people like Tony Abbott and other conservatives have thought about it at all, it should stay like that: good on ya mate and pass the snags.

At the Bicentennial celebrations in 1988, a group of Aborigines barged into a re-enactment of the first British landing at Sydney Cove and threw the actors back into the water. It was around that time that Aboriginal groups began to celebrate 'Survival Day' - if 'celebrate' is the word, they were occasionally sombre and drew in all sorts of other themes related to Aboriginal disposession - Mabo, Stolen Generations, deaths in custody and much else besides.

There is no better day to discuss what it means to be Australian than Australia Day, and that's why it should remain as 26 January. 'What it means to be Australian' includes relationship to, responsibility for and reconciliation with Aborigines. This is why non-Sydneysiders are wrong to sneeringly regard the day as "Sydney Day", with the implication that such a day does not, need not affect them. We'd hardly want to mar, say, Wombat Creek Foundation Day & Race Meeting with such weighty matters.

In the same way, Anzac Day is a focus for reflection on all matters of Australian arms - not just on the landing at Gallipoli, but Great Uncle Frank's wounds from Balikpapan, the appalling military leadership of the 1960s (Robertson of the Melbourne was a pisshead, the Long Tan veterans deserved VCs not MCs), what is being defended at Tarin Kowt, etc., etc. Anzac Day is inadequate as a full national day because it is so outward-looking, some corner of a foreign field and all that; it is Australia Day that provides the focus for what it means, as some would have it, to be a Strain.

Dodson was wrong to suggest that the day itself be moved to some less sensitive day. When would that day be? What should we do on 26 January, because without a commemoration of some sort it would be more likely, not less so, that Aboriginal issues and perspectives would be ignored. Even now, the media kerfuffle followed by Rudd's smug put-down has crippled any authority that Mick Dodson might have gained in his temporary role; he's just another mouthy black now rather than an educator and a leader, and more's the pity. Another opportunity wasted in the interactions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia over their country.


  1. So true Andrew...this article should be published in every newspaer in Australia....

  2. Good points. I supported the idea that the day should eventually be moved, but you have reframed the issue for me.

  3. You know Andrew, quite frequently I find myself agreeing with you (form a party and I might even vote for it).

    Your argument is a bit cookie-cutter conservative ("don't change because there are subtle benefits that you haven't thought of") but it is very convincing and you've actually changed my mind on the issue.

    Thank you.

  4. Your secret's safe with me, JM.