Australia Day on January 26 celebrates not just the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney Harbour in 1788 but the establishment on this continent of British civilisation. The date is heavy with the symbolism of the radical change that occurred within a few decades: the dispossession of the Aboriginal people and the replacement of their hunter-gatherer way of life with a cultural, political and legal system far more sophisticated and powerful. Those who are opposed to the celebration of Australia Day on January 26 are signalling their opposition to British settlement and all it brought with it. They regard the founding of modern Australia as illegitimate and immoral. An ABC news interview with the Aboriginal author of the recent novel Terra Nullius, Claire Coleman, quotes her saying: “We don’t have to imagine an apocalypse, we survived one. We don’t have to imagine a dystopia, we live in one—day after day after day.”
It should go without saying that those who take this position are hypocrites, especially those Aboriginal identities loudest in condemning the arrival of the British. If the continent had never been colonised, Ms Coleman would not be writing novels. She would be illiterate, without a roof over her head or a room of her own.
Nonetheless, this movement seems immune to introspection and is bound to escalate when the next opportunity to seize the headlines arrives this coming January 26. In recent years, protestors have been able to marshal very large numbers in the capital cities. In Melbourne last year a crowd of 50,000 was reported at Federation Square to protest about “Invasion Day”. In Sydney, a crowd with similar intent began a march from Redfern to the city, punctuated by violence against police trying to control them as they burnt the Australian flag.
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The flag-burning gesture, performed with much publicity in 2012 in front of Old Parliament House in Canberra during a demonstration from which security personnel had to physically rescue Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, is now routine on Australia Day. As one of the organisations involved in these protests, Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance, explains: “Like its predecessor the Union Jack, the Australian flag is a bastion of colonial arrogance. Burning the Australian flag is an act of anti-colonial resistance.”
Since then, a number of local government bodies have declared their sympathy for Aboriginal feelings and moved to end those Australia Day celebrations under their control. They include Yarra and Darebin councils in Melbourne, and Fremantle Council in Perth. In recent months, another four Victorian councils—Moreland, Banyule, Whittlesea and Hepburn—plus Cockburn and Bassendean in Western Australia, and Lismore and Byron Bay in New South Wales, have consulted electors with a view to change. In June, the Hobart City Council took a motion to the Local Government Association seeking federal government approval to change Australia Day’s date. Darebin’s mayor, Kim Le Cerf, said she banned the ceremonies because if Australians were better educated they would “feel ashamed to be celebrating on January 26”.
There is also a predictable campaign on social media with much the same ends. The Juice Media website, which is behind the #ChangeTheDate campaign, provides inspiration for its online followers, including the graffiti artist who used the same words to deface the statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park last August. Just as predictably, the ABC has supported the movement through its radio station Triple J’s decision to remove to another date its Hottest 100 program, until now always broadcast on Australia Day. The station said it was “heavily involved in the growing dialogue around indigenous recognition and perspectives on 26 January”.
Does all this mean we are witnessing the emergence of a new national movement in identity politics that has prospects of success? Is this the beginning of a campaign that will sweep the country, like the demand for same-sex marriage, which only five years ago seemed a political bridge too far but is now a fait accompli?
Well, that is possible but there are some formidable obstacles in the way. The main one is the very strong endorsement Australia Day now has in Australian popular culture. As Bob Murray’s article in this edition shows, celebrations of the arrival of the First Fleet began in the time of Governor Macquarie and have continued ever since. They provide a basis for the identity of modern Australia, both for those born here and those who become citizens.
Rather than being a day of shame, the date provides Australian history with a firm foundation. We know precisely when civilisation came to this continent in the form of literacy, modern commerce and industry, judicial independence and rule of law, individual rights, free speech and the Christian religion. We can see how in just 230 years this formula worked so well to transform the country into the prosperous and vibrant social structure we enjoy today.
Moreover, Australia Day has become one of our most popular holidays, not far behind Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. In every suburban park and beach and almost every country town in the nation, community groups and families organise social functions of their own, with almost no role for the heavy hand of government except for fireworks at night to cap it all off. While Australians are not big flag-wavers, on Australia Day you can see Aussie flags on almost every HiLux ute in the outer suburbs and even on a few BMW SUVs in the inner suburbs.
This is why Tony Abbott made such a gaffe when he made an award to Prince Philip on Australia Day 2015. It wasn’t the award that offended but the date it was given. Australia Day is our day, unique to this country, and not for honouring anyone but Australians. This one gesture seemed so alien to the patriotic constituency who voted the Prime Minister into office that he never recovered. One of the few things his successor has got right is his support for Australia Day and his threat to local government bodies that if they fail to commemorate the occasion he will deprive them of their right to conduct citizenship ceremonies.
For most local councils, the citizenship ceremony on Australia Day is their biggest single event of the year. It is by far the most popular day that new citizens choose themselves to pledge their allegiance and it is also the best chance that little-known local politicians get to show themselves off before a gathering of potential voters. It should also be noted that many local Aboriginal identities regard the ceremony highly. They get to do a welcome-to-country before an especially attentive audience and collect very healthy four-figure fees for their trouble. After the Darebin Council decision to abandon all Australia Day activities, the loudest dissenting voice from the locality came from Wurundjeri elder Ian Hunter, the man who regularly performs the council’s indigenous ceremonies. “This was a few individuals saying ‘We know best’,” Hunter complained. “Who did they consult? We are all Australians. We put our differences aside and go forward as one.”
Ian Hunter is right. At this moment in history all we can sensibly do is move forward together.
The colonisation and modernisation of Australia is a clear example of an historical inevitability that is out of our hands. Once the societies on the great Eurasian landmass had developed agriculture and organised themselves into sizeable states with standing armies and navies, any society that could not keep up with the ensuing arms race was doomed to be either subsumed into the larger polities, or extinguished forever.
It was inevitable that, in the age of European expansion, one of the imperial powers would colonise this continent sooner or later. It is not hard to argue that the most benign possible outcome was the one that occurred at the hands of the British. The First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove at a time when the prevailing religious and secular ideas in Britain, especially those of the Evangelical revival and the campaign to abolish the slave trade, both argued that all mankind were brothers and all individuals were equal before both God and the law. The Scottish Enlightenment’s theory of historical stages held that all people, Aborigines included, had the potential to reach the same advanced stage of development. These were views that guaranteed the first contacts between British and Aboriginal culture would involve far less violence than any possible alternative scenario.
Aboriginal society never had the power to deny any of the strangers from overseas the right to drop anchor in their waters or pitch tents on their shores. Under these conditions, to expect the continent of Australia to remain in the hands of hunter-gatherers is naive. To denounce it today, more than two hundred years after the event, is moral indulgence. To try to reverse it is utopian. Australia Day, hooray!