Australia Day has come and gone and we have once again been subject to the annual debate about whether or not we should change the day from January 26 to be more respectful of the impact colonisation had on Indigenous peoples.
This year there was a bit more edge to it as many workplaces around Australia offered staff the option of working on January 26 and taking a different day off instead if January 26 was too traumatic.
The contours of the debate are fairly well-established now. January 26 marks the date the First Fleet landed in Australia and established the settlement of Sydney in 1788 and began English settlement of the continent. For Indigenous Australians, this was the day their land was taken over and changed forever with the arrival of British and European settlers and the abuse and killings to come.
An argument put forward is that Australia is an outlier for celebrating a day of colonisation but national days are often a bit strange and unique to their country. Some countries have Independence Days, others celebrate the Monarch’s birthday, and others celebrate National Days on the anniversary of wars or revolutions. The French celebrate Bastille Day – the beginning of a revolution that ended in bloodshed and ultimately failed. Ireland’s day is simply St Patrick’s Day.
So while it’s superficially true to say Australia’s celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet is unique, it’s also the case that many other countries have unique National Days.
More importantly, this variety tells you something important: National Days are political. They make a statement about who you are as a country, and what you want your country to look like and celebrate.
There’s a case to be made in that context, then, that we should change the date. We aren’t a nation that should celebrate the injustice of colonisation and should make a new national day that encompasses our much longer and more varied history over the entire life of the Australian continent.
There’s also an argument that 1788 is very clearly the beginning of the modern Australian nation and while we haven’t been perfect and there is much to make right, it’s still an important day; we’re still a good, strong, successful country, and it’s a good day to celebrate.
Then there’s also similar arguments you could make about changing the date to something else. Like May 9 (opening of the first Federal Parliament in 1901 and opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra in 1988), May 27 when the referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians as citizens passed. March 12 when the capital city Canberra was founded. Or even the day Australians changed from being British subjects to Australian citizens in 1949 (oh wait, that’s January 26 … never mind).
But what’s clear in the debate more than ever is that for many advocates for changing the date, they don’t actually want a national day at all. Former Labor Minister Craig Emerson seems giddy as he ponders Australia Day “dying of old age”. Economist and Guardian Australia writer Greg Jericho says it “doesn’t represent anything worth being proud of”.
They are entitled to their opinion, of course, but when the argument moves from the date itself to “Australia Day should die” and “we have nothing to be proud of”, we’re getting into troubling territory.
Chasing an alternative date in the name of avoiding harm rather than in pursuit of a better celebration of Australia is bound to fail, because there is no perfect date for those who don’t believe there should be an Australian celebration at all.
And, more importantly, how is it possible to be a united, reconciled country, if we’re not all invested in Australia as a distinct national project worth celebrating?
This exposes one of the great blindspots of progressive attitudes – talking about unity and fairness and identity without grounding those concepts in the real-world ways those things are made manifest. Indeed, it is a feature, not a bug, of the progressive mindset that community and unity is spoken about in the abstract rather than in the concrete terms of family, religion, nation.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind examines how many political differences can be explained by different “moral receptors” that operate like tastebuds. Progressives have particularly strong receptors for “fairness” and “caring” – that is, in this context, it is unfair what has happened to Indigenous Australians and it is caring to change the date for them.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have weaker fairness/caring receptors (though they are present) and much stronger receptors for loyalty, authority, and sanctity. And it’s in those things where you can find the practical foundations of a nation. Sanctity, after all, implies ritual. Which is precisely what a National Day is.
So, for conservatives with those tastebuds, yes, there was injustice done and it was unfair and we should acknowledge that. But our country has ultimately been successful more often than not and it is worth celebrating. We are all on the same team and having a regular formal celebration of that fact is a good thing.
As I said, this is fundamentally a political question. Those who want to change the date understand this. I’m not sure the keep-the-date side are ready for that yet. My advice, then, with 12 months to prepare for the next round is that the side which wants to win always beats the side that wants to be left alone.