A modest proposal: Why today should be Australia Day

As a journalist, I work most public holidays including Australia Day so it makes little difference to me what day it is celebrated on. But its timing on January 26 makes a great deal of difference to many people, and leads me to a modest proposal. Next year January 26 will fall on a Monday and we should celebrate it as such, but let’s make sure that it stays that way in 2016. From that year onwards, let’s move Australia Day so it always falls on the fourth Monday in January. Furthermore, we should have have a new holiday for the Sunday before. Let’s call it Survival Day, it wouldn’t be a paid holiday for anyone (though as a Sunday most people would be off). Australia Day would always be on a long weekend, and would continue to be a day of celebration occurring once every six or seven years on January 26. Survival Day on the day before would be a time for reflection and gratitude for all who have survived the collision of two completely different civilisations from 1788 onwards. Together these changes would take much of the heat out of the arguments for when to have the national day.

The end of January is an excellent time to hold the national holiday. Three or four weeks after the Christmas festive season, many people are in need of a long weekend pick-me-up before the school holidays end. I remember  living in Victoria in the 1980s and 90s when Australia Day was always on that fourth Monday of the year. This was, to some extent, a Melbourne thing not wanting to celebrate Sydney’s birthday. But it was also a way of ensuring it was always a long weekend. Many other states always celebrated on January 26 and Victoria was shamed for being out of step. I believe it is Victoria that was right and the others wrong: they should have all gone the other way.

I accept having Australia Day on January 26 is popular, particularly this year when it falls on the weekend and there is a holiday on Monday, to recover from our Australia Day excesses. But why should we have a hangover holiday? There are those who argue January 1 should be Australia’s national day as it celebrates the Federation of Australia in 1901 but that raises more problems than answers. For starters does News Year’s Day gazump Australia Day or vice versa? Will people back up from New Year’s Eve and does it mean two hangover holidays? Not to mention that if 1788 is problematic historically, 1901 is, if anything, worse.

Australia Day didn’t exist in 1901. It is a 20th century invention and it wasn’t until 1946 it got its formal approval from the federal government. Nowadays, there is little evidence the events of January 26, 1788 in Sydney Cove are important in celebrations of Australia national day. Whether it is people relaxing privately or the great and the good fulminating on the virtues that make the nation, never have I heard anyone drawing lessons or inspiration from what Governor Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet did 226 years ago.

The only people that really care about the 226th anniversary of the founding of Sydney tend to have a deep loathing of the day. On the 150th anniversary in 1938, Aboriginal leaders in Sydney found it offensive enough to launch “a day of mourning”. Only one white person attended the protest meeting at Australia Hall that day, but the evocative day of mourning haunted white consciences for decades afterwards. The descendants of those Mourners had a new message for the 200th anniversary in 1988. They called it “Invasion Day”, which turned the focus from people to land, and it became a thorn in Australia’s soaring confidence in the 1980s, rubbing inconvenient indelible ink stains into the glamour of the bicentennial, leading to the land rights battles of the 1990s.

More recently, Indigenous people gave the day a new twist by calling it Survival Day. This is a significant change of meaning that gives agency back to Indigenous Australians. Europeans came in 1788, they said, many of our mob died in the horrible collision that followed, but importantly, we survived, we are still here.  That long and painful story of Aboriginal Australia highlights why the First Fleet is problematic. It is an inconvenient reminder us of the massive lie at the heart of our history. In some respects, it is a shame Australia does not recall 1788 because in many respects it was the journey to the Moon of its day. Armed with the doubtful knowledge of only one skimpy journey to that part of the world 18 years previously, Phillip led a convoy of one thousand British people (three quarters of them convicts) in 11 ships on a voyage that took 8 months to get to the other side of the world. There were many significant dates in January 1788 that could serve for an anniversary. The Fleet first saw Australian land at Tasmania on January 9 (but had still no idea it was an island). They arrived at Botany Bay a week later landing in dribs and drabs. HMS Supply was the first ship in on the 18th, the convict transports arrived a day later, and the officers and marines brought up the rear on the 20th. Captain of Marines Watkin Tench noted that only one marine and 24 convicts died along the way. Tench had justifiable pride – the death rates on the following fleets were much higher.

Captain Cook gave the name of Botany Bay much thought. Originally he called it Sting-Ray Harbour, then Botanist Bay, but it was an inspired move to eventually come up with the euphonious Botany Bay. The colony remained by that name in British books, songs and legends long after it had outlasted Botany itself. Phillip was in no mood to applaud Cook; he could see that that this poorly watered ground was no place to start a colony. Cook’s description of Botany Bay was oversold and they moved the new colony a few miles up to the next harbour which they called Sydney Cove.

Phillip may have considered Botany Bay unsuitable for occupation but others did. When Phillip and his men first landed at Yarra Bay on the 20th, he was greeted by the Dharawal people who led him to water. This meeting was peaceful, but the French expedition under the Compte de Laperouse which remarkably landed in Botany Bay a few days later ran into trouble, and Phillip’s second in command David Collins noted La Perouse was “compelled to fire upon the natives.” It wouldn’t be long before the British had the same dilemmas.

When they arrived at Sydney Cove on the 26th, they found natives there too. Tench said they were initially curious and then became “more shy of our company.” It was clear to the Eora people these new strangers would not be leaving any time soon, and they shunned them as people who did not understand or respect local law. Phillip, Collins and Tench were all men of the European enlightenment and determined to treat the natives with curiosity, courtesy and the full protection of British law. However they were first and foremost British soldiers and they all accepted absolutely the Crown’s right to rule this new strange land. Phillip never felt the need to offer a treaty, because he had 200 armed marines to enforce British law in his little realm. On the one hand, Indigenous people were “sable brethren” with the same wants and desires as the British, but on the other they were “savages” with no obvious religion to guide them and no government to negotiate with.

Phillip had a desperate need to understand his neighbours, not least to avoid the colony starving to death. He resorted to kidnapping, first Arabanoo, and then Bennelong and Colbee to know the natives better. This treachery was quickly followed by disease. Current thinking has it the British did not bring smallpox to Sydney (Collins tried to blame the French) but instead came down the coast, contracted from the Malays who fished the north coast of Australia for beche de mer (sea cucumber) from 1720 onwards. Yet it seems too coincidental that it should arrive in Sydney 68 years later at the exact moment European invaders were making themselves at home. Whatever the fault, it was catastrophic and the Eora and other tribes came into town dying on their feet with tell-tale signs of pock-marked skin.

After a few years Phillip and Tench went home to England and with them went their enlightened attitudes. Their replacements had no reason to respect the black begging stragglers that haunted the growing town. When the Rum Corps paid their men with gifts of land, the sporadic violence on the edge of the settlement became outright war. This pattern of land allocation, friction with the prior owners, and then fighting for the land would be repeated across Australia for the next 130 years. A war that was never declared, it was never formally ended either but by the time Australia Day was celebrated nationally, all the land belonged to the whitefellas.

Australia swept its violent foundational history under the carpet. It was replaced by a powerful myth that placed Australia as an empty land populated by pioneers who tamed the land with the sweat of their brow. That white settlers were hardworking is beyond question, but so too is the war they faced to win the land. The Aborigines had to be crushed when they fought back because they were vermin polluting the land needed for sheep and cattle and also because the whites believed timidity would be taken for cowardice. Whenever the Aborigines stole this sheep or cattle, they were considered criminals who had to be taught a lesson. Where ever there was a white death, it was repaid in multiples. Aborigines that did survived to the 20th century were considered wards of the state, managed in every aspect of their lives, their lack of freedom only matched by their chronic poverty.

In the 1950s, the powers-that-be thought the way to fix that was to assimilate them into the white state. The Aboriginal people by and large resisted and began to fight back. Contrary to expectations they would die off, their numbers were now increasing. Because many had been scattered from their own country, they were growing a new Pan-Aboriginal culture to replace the tribal culture ripped from them.

Following the 1967 referendum, Indigenous Australians grasped a new level of political consciousness but have never forgotten the lessons of two centuries of oppression. They want not just equal rights as Australians but also Aboriginal rights as descendants of the First Australians. Prime Minister Tony Abbott used his Australia Day speech to start a national conversation about amending our Constitution to recognise that fact. But he has a curious reluctance to march into history to justify his belief. “While Australia Day formally marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, we celebrate something richer and deeper,” he said.  Abbott is mistaken – there is no deeper problem for Australia than coming to terms with its history. A referendum on recognition, must as its starting point, recognise the truth of our past. The war must be formally ended with a treaty and reparations. Moving Australia Day away from January 26 (at least six years out of every seven) would be a handy start.

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3 thoughts on “A modest proposal: Why today should be Australia Day

  1. Great idea, and cogently argued. I’d only suggest “Recovery Day” to focus on the job that still needs to be done.

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