AUSTRALIA DAY

David Dawson – 25th January 2024

It is unfortunate that the discussion about Australia Day has degenerated into a culture war, complete with unwelcome overtones of racism.

Views on Australia Day range across the political spectrum, from the outreaches of progressive political thought to the fringes of right wing ideology, neither extreme contributes to a sanguine appraisal of where we should position Australia Day.

Opinions across the board toss up sharp contrasts. Should it be a joyful celebration of our nationhood, feature events of exaggerated nationalistic fervour, or be completely abolished as an occasion where we acknowledged our history and achievements as a sovereign nation?

The MCC has, throughout its several years as a community organisation recognised the importance of Australia Day to the nation, acknowledging our historical roots and seeing the most singular aspect of the day as one where we can have a reason to rejoice in our inclusiveness and celebrating the occasion in a peaceful, harmonious and understated way1. Where the diversity of our society is seen and accepted as perhaps the most significant achievement of Australia as a nation, one that sees the value of multiculturalism and also offering a reason for our First Nation people to participate in and be able portray their existence and culture as a part of the Australian story2.

However, the date of 26th January inhibits our Indigenous Australians from entirely embracing the occasion as this date, for them, evokes powerful images of colonialism’s impact on Australian Aborigines. They see it as an invasion where European colonialists arrived and declared the land for the British Empire without regard to the existing inhabitants, their civilisation and culture. It would have been difficult for a treaty to be made between the European settlers and the existing inhabitants because the Australian Indigenous population was scattered and disparate with no apparent central authority, but that was no excuse for mistreatment and dispossession.

It is not difficult to see why 26th January may not be the ideal choice for the day to celebrate our nationhood, quite apart from the question of colonial disregard and exploitation of Aboriginal people. It marks the day Captain Arthur Philip landed in Port Jackson with the First Fleet, with the intention of setting up a penal colony, and planted the Union Flag3. It has very little to do with Australia as an inclusive, autonomous, sovereign and democratic nation, it merely signposts the arrival of European settlement of the continent4.

The day that actually pronounced the founding of Australia as a sovereign nation was the 9th May 1901, when the newly elected parliament of the nation had its first sitting in Melbourne. On this day The Duke of York [Later King George V] opened the first parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne Victoria. The Federal Parliament used the Victorian State Parliament building from 1901 to 1927 until the new Commonwealth Parliament House was opened in Canberra, ACT. By no coincidence this occurred on 9th May 1927, the Duke of York [later King George VI performed the opening.]5

It is likely most Australians support recognising our nation’s history, its foundation and its achievements as a modern society. Deciding on 26th January as the Australia Day holiday was perhaps a reflexive afterthought, particularly after the Bi-Centenary celebrations in 1988. In the early days there was not really any other event for the newly arrived settlers to fasten onto to celebrate their new home and new freedoms. Nowadays we have a few more options.

The Colony celebrated its establishment, with private occasions attended by Colonial dignitaries and the elites of the new settlement, from the early 1800s. Public celebration did not occur until 1838. During the early period the day had various nomenclatures, Foundation Day, Anniversary Day and Regatta Day.

Moving the day away from 26th January may resolve the angst our First Nations people feel towards that date, it’s really any empty gesture if Indigenous Australians are not included in celebrations and the rest of us cannot accept and participate with them, to share the traditions, customs and culture of their long history in this land which will always be theirs to own in the traditional sense.

My early recollections of growing up with Australia Day, noting that it was first officially acknowledged in 1938, are; my parents lived in a time when there was no official Australia Day holiday and there was no such thing as an Australian citizen, only British subjects. A few years after 1938 I arrived as a natural born Australian but still regarded as a British subject, and did not achieve Australian citizenship status until the passing of an Act of parliament conferring citizenship.

It is an interesting coincidence that the Nationality and Australian Citizenship Act of 1948 passed into law and came into effect on 26th January 1949. In 1994 the 26th January was declared as a public holiday with Australia Day to be observed on that day. The commonwealth and state governments agreed to unify the celebrations on 26th January as ‘Australia Day’ in 1946, although the public holiday was instead taken on the Monday closest to the anniversary.

More than a few people had mixed feelings about the holiday being declared on the actual day, rather than the traditional long weekend. With the holiday now being on the actual day it appeared to sharpen the focus from an understated occasion to one of overt signs of exclusiveness and national hubris.

Before this Australia Day was simply an opportunity to enjoy a long weekend holiday, it didn’t resonate much within the community, received just a passing mention and not much attention was paid to the history and origins of the occasion, accept for a small number of first fleet descendants, who regarded the day as important and boasted a sense of uniqueness in Australian history. The story of Australia Day may have been recorded in school text books but it didn’t loom large in the lessons of the day. Whilst we all enjoyed a public holiday, nobody gave any thought to how Australian Aboriginals felt about things, like today they had no Voice in our nation.

The MCC supports recognising and celebrating Australia Day, our inaugural Council Chairman and a founding member of the MCC, the late Dr Anthony Pun, was a firm advocate for presenting the occasion as an important date in the calendar of multiculturalism. He was resolute in the view that day belonged to everyone. Dr Pun was born in Malaysia of Chinese parents and migrated to Australia in 1963. He adopted Australia as his home and became a citizen, he advocated the position that citizens had ownership of Australia Day regardless of heritage or ethnicity or social status, political ideology or religion, being Australian was the defining quality.

The MCC believes the date we celebrate Australia Day is extremely important but sees the choice of day as a very sensitive matter; it respects all arguments but still believes an alternative date is worth having a discussion over. The MCC believes any date chosen should have a particular relevance to the establishment of Australia as a sovereign nation. As mentioned earlier, the 9th May has been raised as an option; at least this date can be indisputably linked to our creation as a sovereign nation.

The 26th January also happens to be a day of infamy in Australian history. The 26th January 1808 was the day of the “Rum Rebellion,” when armed soldiers from the notoriously corrupt New South Wales Corps, colloquially known as the “Rum Corps” marched on Government House to throw out Governor William Bligh, it was in reality a ‘coup d’état.’ In effect the New South Wales Corps ran the Colony from 1792, when Governor Philip departed, until 1809.

It could be argued that Australia was fortunate that our British colonial masters were essentially benign overlords and delivered a society that evolved into nationhood peacefully and productively with a sound civil and legal framework. But not if you were an Australian Aboriginal, they did suffer violence and did not share in the wealth and benefits of the new colonial settlement or new nation. Their treatment is an ugly stain on our colonial history, and shamefully the advent of nationhood did not improve their status and daily lives.

There is more than a little irony in our observance of our nationhood being the day we became a European colony. Other nations around the world observe their national day on the day they claim as breaking free of the yoke of colonialism or other systems of servitude. Nevertheless one might say that this in itself is typical Australian quirkiness, irreverence to a haughty establishment or lack of deference to symbols of authority.

Or it could be the exact opposite; we are still stuck with the cultural and colonial cringe; that was evident during the Howard years when “flag wrapping” and elements of jingoism surfaced.  A very conservative interpretation of the occasion emerged, placing greater emphasis on the European aspects of our history and cultural heritage. There is nothing wrong with celebrating our British heritage, it is an inextricable part of our history and development as a nation and should be recognised; but not in exclusivity, this overlooks the modern Australian story that enables everybody to feel they have a part in this story. This is precisely what Dr Tony Pun sought to achieve.

Unlike other nations we don’t have extravagant military parades to mark the occasion, most likely because Australia had a peaceful transition to sovereign nationhood; this in itself is worth celebrating.

Footnotes

1 Section 1D (4) of MCC objects states;

“To promote the taking up of Australian citizenship and encourage the study of Australian civics and history, including the history of the traditional owners of the land; and observances of Australian celebrations (Australia Day) and commemorations (Anzac Day)”

2The MCC was among the first Community Associations in the multiculturalism space to adopt the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Association’s Constitution. (Reference; Section: 1B]

3At the time of the first settlement Terra Australis was called New South Wales to longitude 135° East; west of this longitudinal line was known as Dutch New Holland. The name Australia was adopted in the early 19th century. It had first been suggested by Capt Matthew Flinders RN, who explored and chartered a great part of the Australian continent.’

4Captain James Cook landed on Possession Island (so named by him) in the Torres Strait on 22nd August 1770.

“On a little island in the Straits with the hoisting of flags and much firing of musketry took possession of the entire east coast for the King of England – naming it New South Wales”

5The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was passed by the British parliament on 9th July 1900 and given the Royal Assent by Queen Victoria. It came into effect on 1st January 1901, where, in Centennial Park Sydney, the Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun took the Oath of Office and swore in the caretaker prime minister, Edmund Barton, and his Ministry, until general elections were held on 29th/30th March 1901.

References:

The Constitution of the Multicultural Communities Council of NSW, a not for profit, community association, registered with the Fair Trading department, NSW government.

Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia

History of Australasia (Arthur W Jose)

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Recollections of Dr Anthony Pun OAM

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