Every year the opposition to 26 January as Australia Day grows as the knowledge and understanding of ever more Australians grows. It exemplifies the whole Australian identity crisis and confusion.
The blame lies with those who drafted the Australian Constitution. Whereas most countries celebrate their national day to mark some progression, such as independence from a colonial power, the formation of the Australian nation on 1 January 1901 was tainted with racism and apron strings attached to the “mother country”.
Many of those strings remain, including the British monarch being Australia’s head of state and the constitutional requirement that Members of Parliament swear or affirm that they “will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Her heirs and successors according to law” – rather than serving the people of Australia who elected them.
And the Constitution refers to the people as “subjects of the Queen”.
The racism came with the clause (repealed by referendum in 1967) that Indigenous people shall not be counted in censuses and therefore not count towards determining the number of parliamentary representatives in each state.
The Privy Council in London was Australia’s and some states’ highest court until the 1970s and beyond.
The whole thing was laced with Britishness, such that the notionally Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies could declare himself “British to the bootstraps” half a century after Australia ostensibly became a nation.
So, 1 January was not a suitable national day, besides it was already a holiday.
The date of the arrival of the First Fleet, 26 January, morphed very slowly into the national day. It was marked only in NSW – as Anniversary Day – until 1888. Other states marked other days as Australia Day. January 26 only became legislated in all states in 1994.
The date has no totally national meaning. Cook and the First Fleet only claimed possession to the lands across to the 129th longitude (now the Western Australian border). But it does mark the invasion of the continent.
The argument about 26 January and a national day, however, should be seen in the wider context of national and identity, of both the nation and the people in it.
How long must we continue to have a foreigner as head of state? How long must the Queen in London approve the selection of her representative in Australia whose powers are sprinkled through the Constitution and only controlled by fragile convention?
When will the Indigenous people of Australia get an effective voice in government?
When will Australians be fully citizens with constitutional guarantees of stated rights and freedoms?
How long will 26 January – a day of invasion for the Indigenous people and a day of expulsion and exile for the invaders, convict and soldier alike – be legally designated the national day for celebration?
No free settlers arrived on 26 January 1788 – just convicts and their guards.
There is nothing to celebrate, unless one wants the racist celebration of the first presence of white people on this continent. There is nothing else.
The question is not whether we should replace 26 January as a national day, but which other day should be the national day.
The answer to that question should be self-evident: when we fully become a nation by severing the constitutional ties to Britain; when we bring Indigenous people fully into the Australian federal compact; and when the people of Australia obtain guaranteed constitutional rights and freedoms.
They should be done together as a package of constitutional change and Australia’s national day would be on the day that happens.
The voice for Indigenous Australians must be more than the mere platitude of some words of recognition in the Constitution. And it must go beyond some advisory mechanism to the Parliament which can easily be ignored – as the history of the past 223 years tells us will be likely.
About 800,000 people identify as Indigenous in Australia, or 3.3 per cent of the population. That is more than the population of Tasmania. The Indigenous people were here before any of the so-called Original Colonies.
So, why couldn’t they have a right to swap to an Indigenous electoral roll and have similar representation as the original colonies, now states? That would mean five Members of the House of Representatives and 12 senators. That would be a real voice.
Sure, candidates in the Indigenous electorate might be members of the existing political parties. So much the better. That would give an Indigenous voice in the party rooms of all the parties.
In any event, this question of national identity is not going away. It may take time, knowledge and understanding, but it is pretty much unidirectional.
A good analogy is Australians’ attitude to same-sex marriage. Even 10 years ago, the great majority of people were opposed. But slowly people saw the justice of the cause.
The same-sex marriage referendum, proposed by a timid Coalition Government dominated by its right-wing not willing to just legislate for it, in a way back-fired for conservatives. It showed that Australians were prepared to see and act on the justice of a cause.
So, too, it will happen over Australia Day and an Indigenous voice and the sooner the better for the sake of our national psyche and pride.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 30 January 2021.