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Should We Move Australia Day?

Well, another Australia Day has come and gone. We had barbecues. We got drunk. Yet, for many in our country, especially our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there was little to celebrate. For many, the day that the first fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour in 1788 is a day that symbolises the start of all the pain, suffering and continued difficulties that continue right up to this day. To many, it was the start of an invasion.

In the past, I had been a huge fan of Australia Day being January 26th. To me back then, it was a day we acknowledged our history, and celebrated what was good about this country. Being together. But in the last few years, especially at university, that enjoyment has been replaced with conflict. Maybe it is because I now see the perspective of others, from hanging out with friends who are indigenous. Maybe it is that the calls to change the date have gotten louder in recent years. But now, I must confess, I’m starting to agree.

I know many will disagree with me. That's fine, we all have different opinions. I know that I am in a minority here. In a poll taken by The Guardian this year, only 15% of all Australians support changing the date. But, that same poll also found that over 54% of indigenous Australians supported changing the date, with only 23% feeling positive about the day itself. Isn’t our national day supposed to be something that we ALL celebrate?

With numbers like that, it’s clear that its ‘national’ aims are not realised. It’s clear that we all do not understand the perspectives of each other. So, rather than just doing another writing piece that ‘whines’ and says ‘we should change the date’ without advancing the argument further, I want to think about the issue further, examine different points of view, examine WHY we should do change the date, and offer a constructive alternative day that allows us ALL to come together and celebrate what is great about our country.

First of all, its obvious we should have a day we should call ‘Australia Day.’ The ideology behind why we celebrate is done with good intentions. We SHOULD come together. We should enjoy being together. When we live in a lucky country like this, how could you not want to come together to listen to Triple J, have a barbecue and beers with mates, and have a good time? What matters it is the fact it is January 26. That. Specific. Date.

For many, it is the ‘official’ start of European history in Australia. But then again, that significance only really focuses on the European perspective, which flies in the face of a ‘national Day’ for a country as multicultural as ours. The entire idea is to come together to celebrate what is good about Australia. But, for indigenous people, this day isn’t doing that.

Celebrating the start of European history firstly disregards the fact that there were people here beforehand. Secondly, why would you celebrate the specific day that started years of persecution and suffering to your people? Yes, all the death, pain and suffering didn’t fall on this day, and yes, back on that day in 1788, the first fleet landing was down out of colonisation for the British Empire, and not done with the sole intention to wipe out the indigenous population. But to indigenous people, this day is the start of that suffering. It all went downhill from that moment. If I was in their shoes, why the fuck would I want to celebrate that day?

Many may say though that we have been celebrating this day for many years. Have we? While many remember the bicentennial celebrations of 1988, all States and Territories only officially began to collectively celebrate Australia Day as a national holiday in 1994. So really, we only have been celebrating this event as a national day for twenty-three years.

However, I for one would not recommend striking off the day entirely from our calendars. It is something we should acknowledge. Absolutely. Like it or not, it is an important moment in our history. But it really comes down to how we commemorate it. For example, how do we commemorate the ANZACs, or a World War? Not with a barbecue, and getting drunk. Instead, we come together, outside War Memorials and on the fields where the battles took place, and we remember.

Should January 26th be a day where we acknowledge, instead of celebrate? Should it be a day that we say that we will not forget the pain that came beforehand? Some may say that’s ridiculous, that they should let it go and forget about it. I disagree. We should never forget the past, because those who do forget the past are condemned to repeat it. We can use that date to acknowledge the past, and also, to use it as a tool to change offensive attitudes of some people in this country. ANZAC Day does that. It shows us, that with everything we have, it came at a cost.

To me, January 26, like ANZAC Day, should be a day of remembrance and reflection, rather than celebration. That is a sign of respect for the past, and respect for indigenous peoples. We can’t change the past, but we sure as hell can remember it in an appropriate manner. Like we remember world wars. Or the Holocaust. For indigenous people, it was an invasion. It’s the appropriateness of the commemoration that matters, not just the commemoration itself.

So really, what it comes down to is selecting a date that allows for us to embrace the ideology that Australia Day currently has, but also selecting a date that allows ALL of us to enjoy it. The date must be a beacon of celebration and reconciliation. Right now, Australia Day, much like Australia itself, is a somewhat of a contradiction. It was sad to see police clashes at Invasion Day marches, almost ironic on a day when we should celebrating.

So, what day? Whatever day it must be, it has to be one of symbolic importance. Some would ask, what would a symbolic gesture achieve? If you walk across a bridge, or wear a ribbon, would that really do anything? It’s a fair question. And no, it won’t solve the problems of the past. But instead, I would rather a symbolic gesture be a starting point: a catalyst for changing attitudes. A symbolic change shows a change in attitude, acknowledges the point of view of indigenous people, and says to the general population that mistreatment of indigenous people is not acceptable. That is a symbolic change.

A good example of one such symbolic change occurred in 1975, when Gough Whitlam turned up at Wave Hill station and poured a hand full of sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand, giving back land to the Gurindji people. Since then, just under one fifth of Australia’s total landmass has been returned to indigenous people. This number has been growing especially quickly since the Mabo case and the introduction of the Native Title Act in 1993. That came from one symbolic gesture. From little things, big things grow.

So, what specific day? Many options have been suggested, from January 1 to May 8. The ACT Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, even suggested the idea of having it the day we become a republic. For me, there are two realistic options: the dates either side of January 26. The change is minimal, we still get to keep our summer holiday, and more importantly, it is done for a symbolic reason.

January 25th, the day before European settlement, can be used as a viable option for Australia Day because it can symbolise that there were people in this country before European settlement. This is one that shows respect to the first Australians who came here over 40,000 years ago.

However, my personal preference would be either January 27th or 28th. If January 26th is a day for remembrance, then the days afterwards should be a celebration of a country that acknowledges the past, but moves forward together as one. After our remembrance of the past, we come together to break out the beers and barbecues, welcome new people to our country, and above all, be around people we love. That sends more of a message of tolerance and togetherness than the current date does. Yes, it may not be perfect. But as an ideological goal, it is one that aspires to BE a country that accepts, and shares. And, to top it off, many may wonder if we would even be allowed a two-day celebration, but then again it seems almost appropriate for Aussies to have an extended public holiday.

Now, obviously, I only raise this to encourage discussion in something I believe should happen; I for one would not want to steal the national day from anyone. But, what was great to see was that for the first time ever this year, we had a national event happen on January 28th over in Fremantle, Western Australia. The Fremantle Council cause a huge stir when they announced they would be having Australia Day moved back two days to be more ‘culturally sensitive.’ Many thought it would be doomed to fail. Then 15,000 people showed up. Even the council was taken aback. Both indigenous and non-indigenous acts performed, and judging by the response, the crowd loved it.

It would be foolish and idiotic to suggest the scars of the past could be easily erased by changing the date. Of course it would not. But I leave you with one final thought: on my Australia Day this year, I got to hang out with many of my friends from uni and from work. To me personally, that mattered more than any showing of patriotism or pride; just being with the people you love is what is important. When reports of the clashes with police and protesters at Invasion Day marches came on the television screen during the ad break while watching the cricket, it was a telling polar opposite to the circumstances where I was.

We must celebrate, but also acknowledge and remember our chequered history. I’d like Australia Day to be one for all of us to enjoy, both indigenous and non-indigenous. I would be totally happy with moving a day so all of us can enjoy it. I mean, what are we going to lose? We’re still going to have our national day! So let’s a change in our attitude, and change the date.

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