Australia Day is a time for us to reflect on and celebrate our rich history and success as a nation. It’s also a time to give voice to our on-going commitment to democracy, fairness and inclusiveness.
For me it’s an important day, but it doesn’t matter much to me which day we do it. The key point is that it should be a day of celebration for all, not just most. If some indigenous Australians find it offensive then a debate about changing it has merit and those who argue for change should not be dismissed or worse, pilloried.
It’s not as if January 26 has some special significance for us as Australians. The date marks the day the British claimed sovereignty over “New Holland”. There was no “Australia” then. Australians didn’t achieve anything then, we didn’t exist. And Australia Day as not celebrated on January 26 until more than a Century later.
It was not until 1994 that the date was consistently marked by a public holiday on that day by all states and territories.
The national day of the United States marks the date the American people secured an independence they had to fight for. This is common amongst countries. In Canada, July 1, 1867, was the date of three separate colonies became a single Dominion within the British Empire called “Canada”.
In New Zealand, Waitangi Day celebrates a treaty the Maoris freely entered into with the British.
By contrast, in Australia we celebrate the day the British came to shore. We are not unique; the Spanish celebrate the day of the arrival of Christopher Columbus. But the date is not one of achievement for Australians.
For me, four dates would make good sense. The first is January 1, the date we federated and formally became a nation. Bad timing though! The second is May 9, the day the National Parliament first met. The third is the date Royal assent was given to the Statute of Westminster. Passed on 11 December 1931, the Act established the legislative independence of the self-governing dominions of the British Empire from the UK.
The fourth is December 4; the date Royal assent was given to the Australia Act of 1986. This Act completed the work of the Statute of Westminster by cutting the only remaining powers the British held here. It also removed the possibility of appealing a decision of the Courts here in the UK’s Privy Council. It’s all food for thought.
First published Wednesday, 1 February in the Hunter Valley News.