Editorial
The date is changing

Floate is a design company based in Melbourne. It works for clients such as ANZ bank and Origin Energy.

In response to The Saturday Paper’s call for a boycott of Australia Day celebrations on January 26, the company’s principal, Ross Floate, asked his staff if they would consider coming to work on the holiday. The idea is simple: that until Australia Day is held on a date for all Australians, until it is shifted to a date that does not mark a dispossession of land, it is not a day that should be celebrated. Floate’s entire staff agreed to trade the holiday for a day in lieu.

At the same time as Floate was writing to his staff, Alex Hawke was writing to the City of Fremantle. The assistant minister for immigration admonished the council over its decision to shift Australia Day celebrations by a few days, so as to genuinely include First Australians in festivities.

Hawke told the council that the Turnbull government took a “dim view” of its decision. He threatened to intervene by cancelling planned citizenship ceremonies.

“If Fremantle Council is found to be in breach of the code,” Hawke said, “I have the power to revoke Fremantle council’s ability to preside over citizenship ceremonies under the Australian Citizenship Act 2007.”

Elsewhere, he said: “The government’s firm position is that citizenship ceremonies are non-commercial, apolitical, partisan and secular and must not be used as forums for political, partisan or religious expression.”

Malcolm Turnbull said: “Let’s stick with Australia Day on the 26th.”

This is a cruel adherence to the status quo. It is also proof that it is doubtful the government can be relied on to find an inclusive date to celebrate Australia. It is too difficult, too requiring of vision. There are no votes in it.

It is also why companies like Floate need to lead on shifting debate. It is why individuals need to consider boycotting celebrations, why local government needs to lead where federal governments have failed. If you own a business, have this conversation with your staff.

As always, it is not about saying Australia should not celebrate itself; it is about saying we must find a date, any date, that does not represent the trauma of our First Peoples. The more people who actively question the rightness of January 26 as a date for celebration, the more people will awake to the realities of its symbolism.

The Saturday Paper will continue to advocate in public for divestment from Australia Day, for performers to pull out of concerts, for families to choose not to attend celebrations. In private, we will continue to talk to musicians about cancelling gigs, to businesses about encouraging their staff to work. Eventually, when offices are full, when parks are empty, when barbecues are unlit and stages vacant, politicians will have to act. The public will already have spoken.

Fremantle council rightly rejected Hawke’s stand-over tactics, his willingness to punish new citizens for this country’s refusal to engage with the hurts of its history. “It is not a political rally or protest,” the council said in a statement, “and also satisfies the conditions of being non-commercial, bipartisan and non-religious.”

What Hawke fails to grasp is that January 26 is a political date, far more so than the alternatives on either side of it. It is the date on which First Australians had their country taken, the date Arthur Phillip raised a Union Jack at Sydney Cove and claimed the east coast for the British.

We are one people in this country and we deserve a national holiday to celebrate as one people. There is an easy way to get such a day: change the date.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "The date is changing". Subscribe here.