Australia Opinion

Australia Day: A hollow, 'Un-Australian' day

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Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has made it his mission to preserve Australia Day (image via YouTube - edited)

Politicians are calling for boycotts after Woolworths, claiming it's “out of touch” with the country, decides not to sell Australia Day merchandise. But Australia Day, on the facts, is not so Australian.

On the 14th of July, the French celebrate the liberation of a prison. On the 26th of January, Australians celebrate the founding of one.

Conservatives are baulking at the recent decision by Woolworths not to sell Australia Day paraphernalia. In a volte-face, the retail giant has triggered the Coalition into abandoning its adherence to free market principles. Leader of the Coalition Peter Dutton has “advised” Australians to take their business elsewhere and laid the blame on Albanese’s “woke agenda” influencing CEOs. Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jacinta Price, answering Dutton’s call for boycotts, has implied Woolworths is not “prepared to be proud of our country”.

And Senator Pauline Hanson of One Nation laments that 'big business in Australia appears to be completely out of touch with the rest of us' (since when?). She has gone on to declare that Australia Day is a celebration of our “founding”. But, on the evidence, the 26th of January does not mark our founding. Nor, contrary to what Price believes, is there much to be proud of. It is by all accounts, not, an Australian day.

Making land in Sydney Cove, passengers of the First Fleet, many of them convicts, disembarked their ships and waddled up the coast. Britain’s antipodal project began in earnest. After surveying the coasts and botching Botany Bay, Britain’s bloated penal population arrived at their new prison. On the evening of the 26th, the Governor and his officers planted the British colours and drank to the King’s health.

No emancipatory urge was to be found here. No thought was given to crafting an Australian identity. The endeavour was not an exercise in nation-building. Our national day was entirely colonial. It was a British day. Arguing that the 26th tags our founding is like celebrating the day we are conceived rather than the day we are born.

There is no great event in our history signposting where Britain ends and Australia begins. We remain a country in utero. We call each other “larrikins” and drape ourselves in phrases like “mateship” and “a fair go”, but this is a product of our uneventful history. It is difficult, if even possible, to identify a day that is “Australian” enough to warrant making it a public holiday.

Unlike the Americans who have "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", their Bill of Rights, and a Declaration of Independence, we lack enumerated values, a defining document (our Constitution is littered with references to the Queen) or a singular turning point. Instead, Australia is marked by a series of incremental changes from which it emerges increasingly upright.

For example, it was only in the 19th Century that authorities decided to bring “Australia” into official use. And with Federation, Australia went from a handful of self-governing colonies into a nation in 1901. Our national flag was not flown until later that same year (if Hanson was true to her patriotism, she would be waving the Union Jack).

Some more facts.

Australian passports stopped being labelled British passports from 1967, and it was not until late in the 20th Century that new citizens no longer swore allegiance to the British crown. “Advance Australia Fair” replaced “God Save the Queen” in 1984. And the Commonwealth Australia Acts 1986 rescinded the jurisdiction of the Privy Council (in the United Kingdom) as our highest court and eliminated the possibility for the UK to legislate with effect in Australia. The Act formally severed our judicial and legislative connection with Britain.

The High Court held in the 2003 case of Shaw v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs that the Act 'gave voice to the completion of Australia’s evolutionary independence'. Then, in 1992 the grotesque doctrine of terra nullius was repudiated by our High Court in "Mabo", a first step towards expiating our original sin.

Yet the stamp of empire remains, albeit it faded. Our head of state is still an unelected monarch to whom politicians are required to swear an oath of allegiance. Evidently, Australia is not divorced from its British roots, and the custody battle over independence will be stalled until we become a republic — an obvious day to replace the 26th.

Thankfully, but to the consternation of Jacinta Price, Australia is gradually waking up to its history. If the 26th must be designated our founding day, a day of pride, democracy, liberalism, of the inception of Australian values, then it is necessarily a day of mourning. You cannot have one without the other. For it marks the beginning of the end of Indigenous sovereignty and the opening act in their outrageous treatment. The day becomes a reminder that celebrating what we gained must make room to accept what was taken.

Members of the Coalition may bemoan this cognitive dissonance as “woke”, but it is not a novel phenomenon in Australian culture. On ANZAC Day, we commemorate the dead and pridefully recognise our armed forces past and present. And yet we can still make room to acknowledge the plight of veterans and the miseries of war. Australia, stubbornly, still battles with the truth of its early history.

At a judicial level with "Mabo", at the legislative level with the Native Title Act 1993 and at a national level with Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Apology (Dutton apologised for boycotting it in 2023), exist instances where two thoughts were held together. But Hanson, Dutton, and Price refuse to accept that there is more than one current in history. Maybe in 15 years, Dutton will apologise for this latest boycott?

For now, perhaps the best we can do is settle for the 26th. Amending Churchill, the 26th may be the worst date for Australia Day, except for all the others. But we cannot ignore these two simple truths: Australia Day is not an Australian day, and if we are to celebrate it, if we absolutely must commit to the 26th, let us commit to it absolutely, warts and all.

Dominic Wexler is an Australian law student and writer from Brisbane with a B.A. in history and philosophy.

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