‘Patriots’ depriving the rest of a national day

We approach yet another Australia Day – the national day that most nations celebrate their identity and/or birth – with continued human confusion and muddle about both. Geographically we are certain about what Australia is. Humanly we are not.

Every Australia Day reminds us of the two big unresolved matters of Australian identification: finding the proper place for indigenous people and removing the obsolete place of the British monarchy in the Constitution.

Neither unresolved issue will go away. And while unresolved, many if not most Australians will feel their national identity is unsatisfactory, wanting, in need of repair, or a source of outright anger.

We will be forever lessened as a people until these two matters are resolved in a way that all Australians can be proud of and self-assured and satisfied in their nationhood.

Importantly, the two issues should go hand-in-hand. It is unfortunate that we have seen some people and organisations arguing that one or other should come first. We must not be duped by British-Empire, divide-and-rule tactics.

The questions are inextricably linked. The declaration, upon the raising of the Union Jack on 26 January 1788, that the continent to 129 degrees longitude be a possession of King George III and his successors was also, by its nature, an act of dispossession of the Indigenous people.

For a long time, the disposed identified as members of their clan group – there were estimated to be about 500 of them in 1788 – while the new arrivals saw themselves as British. Robert Menzies who was Australian Prime Minister until retiring in 1966 called himself “British to the bootstraps”.

No Australian would identify as being “British to the bootstraps” now, let alone the Prime Minister. Whereas people of the Indigenous nations very much identify as Australian.

Nonetheless, the “British” elements, including the British monarch at its apex, remain in our Constitution while so many Indigenous people feel excluded, particularly from health, wealth and education.

Small wonder that the vast majority of Indigenous people and a growing number of people of non-Indigenous heritage see 26 January as “Invasion Day” – an invasion by the British whose monarch today remains at the constitutional apex and whose flag sits in the top right of the Australian flag.

When the concerns about whether the national day should be 26 January and whether the dispossession and continued disadvantage be acknowledged, former Prime Minister John Howard referred to it as “the black-armband” view of history and present Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it “indulgent self-loathing”.

But the continued marking of 26 January as the national day has a racist undertone not a nationalist one. It was not a nation-founding moment. It was the declaration of the land known as New South Wales as a colony – a place for white people from Britain to settle and place their convicts.

Marking 26 January can only be a “celebration” of the beginning of the white takeover or settlement of the continent, not the creation of the Australian nation, which was only to come 112 years later.

The land that is now Western Australia was not even included in the 26 January 1788 declaration. The lands that are now Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT were just part of the colony of NSW.

To “celebrate” 26 January as Australia Day is either ignorant or racist.

And as more people understand the history, the more they do not want to be part of any 26 January “celebration”. Many have barbecues only because it happens to be a public holiday.

Those in power who do not want to change the date do not understand what they are doing. They profess to be patriotic, loyal Australians, but by their inactions they are contributing to a growing body of people who would prefer no Australia Day to a flawed racist one. They are undermining national pride, not promoting it.

The growing body of people may not be taking to the streets, but they are voting with their feet. They are embarrassed by the ignorant displays of flag-waving jingoism on 26 January. They do not want to join the “celebrations” because that would mean acquiescence. 

And they are embarrassed that successive governments who are supposed to represent them have not had the self-assurance and confidence to remedy these two blemishes on our national identity.

They are not indulgent self-loathers nor dismissive of enormous achievements by Australians. They just want the real history told. But they are disgusted at the speed with which the Coalition Government dismissed the legitimate requests in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And they are frustrated that those in power cannot find a way to convert that and the majority’s republican desires into our constitutional arrangements.

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On the question of the republic, the Australian Republican Movement should pack its tent and go away. The publication by the ARM this month of the “Australian Choice” model can only do what its campaign for a republic in the 1990s did: set back the cause, rather than progress it.

In the 1990s the ARM built up a great head of steam, culminating in a national convention. It then failed to neutralise the grand-standing direct-election faction. And finally, the ARM fell for Howard’s divide-and-rule referendum, resulting in an unholy alliance of monarchists and direct-elect people defeating the majority desire for a republic.

And now they have come up with a ridiculous model of each state nominating one candidate for president and the Commonwealth nominating three candidates with all 11 standing in a preferential election. Not even a dog would eat that breakfast. And no-one with an ounce of self-respect would take part in it.

ARM, please go away. Just let a sensible government legislate to require that the Prime Minister get approval of their nominated person from a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting before the Prime Minister can request the Queen to appoint that person as Governor-General.

And when that is seen as a worthwhile check on the present untrammelled power of the Prime Minister to pick anyone they like as Governor-General, a referendum to remove the Queen from the process will be a mere formality.

Spare us camel-creating committees.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 25 January 2022.

6 thoughts on “‘Patriots’ depriving the rest of a national day”

  1. Reconsidering the failed 1999 model yet again after its clear repudiation by the Australian voters would be the height of bull-headed arrogance. The minimalist, “parliamentary appointment” mob had 5 years to sell the idea but could not do it. If anybody sabotaged the republican movement after getting it on the agenda, it was former PM Paul Keating, who tried to force-feed us an unpopular model. Malcolm Turnbull was the frontman with input from Professor Winterton, but Keating was a career politician so should have known better. For a Labor leader, he can come off as snobby as anybody from the old country. Re a republic having majority support, yes, but not that one! Appealing to monarchists with a quasi GG is futile because they will not vote for ANY kind of republic. After all this time, that should be clearly obvious.

  2. January 26th was conceved [sic] of as Australia Day in the 1880s and not adopted by all states until the 1930s, at the height of the White Australia Policy. It is better, as you say albeit through sarcasm, to celebrate it as the beginning of settlement of the continent. Federation Day is when the Commonwealth began, ‘a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation’ on the first day of the 20th century, January 1, 1901. Mabo Day is the last day of Reconciliation week on June 3rd. We have many reasons to celebrate. A single ‘Australia Day’ may indeed be a misunderstanding of the evolutionary nature of the emerging of our country, its independence “conceived through negotiation and the ballot box, rather than by blood and war. This legacy of peace and stability has been the hallmark of Australian history.” The Frontier Wars that preceded the founding of the Commonwealth are now, rightly so, openly a part of our history, and we continue to work towards a resolution, heeding the Uluru Statement.

  3. And while we’re at it, can we please dispense with that b awful national anthem? The words are doggerel and the music could not grace a breakfast cereal ad.

  4. Thanks for your article on Australia Day in the CT this morning.
    While the Australian constitution was proclaimed on Jan 1 1901, the day that Australia it took effect and Australia became a nation is the day that our first national parliament met, May 9, 1901. This date was remembered in the opening of the provisional Parliament House on 9 May, 1927 and new Parliament House on 9 May 1988, and old Parliament House became the Museum of Australian Democracy on 9 May 2009. But much more than these historic precedents, Parliament is the place where our democracy is put to the test and put into practice, and it is where Indigenous recognition will be achieved and a republic declared. We need an Australia Day on 9 May that celebrates our democracy and a separate day for recognition of and reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, on a date that they chose.

  5. You judgment of the daft ARM “model” is harsh but fair. When pollsters ask, “Would you or would you not vote for Australia to become a republic”, merely using the r-word turns people off. The cautious question that should be asked is, “Do you or do you not want our Governor-General to report to the Queen?”

    I would even say it like this: “Legislate that the Governor-General no longer report to the Queen, but requiring that the Prime Minister get approval for their nominee from a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting.”

  6. Australia, as a British colony, being a place to transport Britain’s convicts can also be examined through history. Britain had a growing poor within its cities without an adequate penal system. It did have colonies in the Americas including Canada and its own near neighbour in Ireland.
    The rise of Napoleon and subsequent fall of European monarchies with their associated aristocracies scared Britain to its “bootstraps”. The rise of the poor through revolution was yet another factor.
    The American War of Independence further constricted the slave trade and shipment of convicts. Revolution was being heightened in Ireland. Food was exported from Ireland to feed London. The Industrial Revolution, including agricultural reforms, had begun as the migration of people into the cities grew.
    Within this environment Australia was born as a colony. It’s a history not previously taught in our schools prior to Manning Clark’s controversial History of Australia c1970. Manning Clark challenged politicians like Menzies and Howard to acknowledge Australia’s history of convict transportation, emancipists and our indigenous First Nations. Those like Howard have continued to struggle with identity and truth. Many others, like numerous historians (Reynolds, Boyce, Karskens, Hughes, Clements, Pascoe etc), have researched and written the truths of dispossession, wars, massacres and incarceration.
    Oddly, becoming a Republic would also resolve our dilemmas on an agreed national day, flag, constitution and identity.

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