At a basic level, politics is the search for will. It is about finding the possibilities for a country. But if anything has defined the past decade or so of public life in Australia, it is the misplacing of this key principle. It is no longer plausible to expect our leaders to lead.
That is why this message is not directed towards politicians. They are not listening. This is a message to musicians, to artists, to families. It is a call to boycott Australia Day celebrations on January 26. It is a call to find a new date to celebrate as one people. It is a call to move the culture, so the politics follows.
I write this as the editor of a newspaper, considering the weight of responsibility. I write knowing there are more pressing issues in Indigenous politics: this is not treaty, it is not recognition; it does not address incarceration rates or health or education. But it is an issue so straightforward, so simple to fix, its hurt so needless, that it cannot be ignored.
There is no denying that January 26 marks the date of a dispossession, and that to celebrate it as a national holiday is offensive. The solution, similarly, is clear: change the date. Governments gazette public holidays; all they need do is gazette a different one.
The mode for this campaign is simple. It is a boycott not unlike the “green bans” of the 1970s. Everyone who is booked to play a major Australia Day concert will be telephoned and asked to consider what they are inadvertently celebrating. They will be asked to pull out of the event. Triple J will be asked to move its key broadcast. In time, ferry captains will be asked not to race their boats. As a lead to other businesses, The Saturday Paper staff will not take the public holiday. Eventually, when stages are emptied, when parks are unoccupied, when families decide to stop marking January 26, the country will be forced to wake up and ask itself what it is really celebrating. The politics will play catch-up.
This is not about shame. It is not about guilt. It is about realising that a very simple act makes a large difference, that unthinking tradition causes real hurt.
This is about the belief that culture can lead politics, that artists can effect change. We must move on this because political leadership on the issue is too sclerotic, too self-interested, too mean.
The celebration of January 26 is not a deep tradition. It can be changed. It was not until 1994 that states and territories together marked Australia Day on January 26. Festivities before then shifted from Monday to Monday for the sake of long weekends.
The symbol at play, like the nationalism it supports, is juvenile and ill formed. The day on which we celebrate this country is a day of disharmony. It was not intended as such, but it is.
The day that replaces it does not much matter. It could be May 27, the date of the 1967 referendum, the day on which 90 per cent of white Australia voted to recognise Indigenous Australians, the day on which the nation moved forward as one people. It could be January 31, the date in 1973 that the final vestiges of the White Australia Policy were essentially dismantled, the day modern Australia accepted its place as a nation of many cultures. To be honest, the new date could be chosen with a dartboard and better represent the fullness of this country.
Australia is not its white settlement. Australia is its First Peoples and their thousands of years of history and present; it is its convicts and squatters, its migrants, its refugees; it is its shared history and its contemporary harmony.
When Mick Dodson was named Australian of the Year in 2009, he used his speech to suggest that Australia Day be shifted to a new date. He said January 26 was a day of mourning for many Indigenous Australians. It was “the day on which our world came crashing down”. Dodson said Australia was “mature enough about it now” to consider moving the date.
Then prime minister Kevin Rudd dismissed the suggestion immediately. “The government has no plans to and will not be changing the date of Australia Day or the name of Australia Day,” he said through a spokeswoman, adding that Australia Day was “an inclusive day, celebrating the identity and achievements of all Australians”.
Later, in a perverse definition of debate, he said: “Let me say a simple, respectful but straightforward ‘no’. We are a free country and it is natural and right from time to time that there will be conversations about such important symbols for our nation. It is equally right as a free country that those of us charged with political leadership provide a straightforward response.”
Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull said: “I think Australia Day, and I’m sure most Australians agree, is very appropriate today. I don’t support changing the day.”
The then shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Tony Abbott, broke with the usual bipartisan support for Dodson’s award: “If I had been a selection committee of one I would have much more inclination to pick Noel Pearson or Warren Mundine.”
When Adam Goodes was named Australian of the Year in 2014, he noted that the celebration of Australia Day was mixed with “the sadness and mourning and the sorrow of our people and a culture that unfortunately has been lost to me through generations”. His comments were misrepresented and condemned as divisive.
But it should not fall to Indigenous Australians to have this conversation, to repair the symbolism forced on them. It should not be demanded that they argue the injustice, and then be branded unpatriotic, dismissed as sensitive, hounded by racists. This is a hurt perpetuated by white Australia and white Australia must fix it.
Although a national Australia Day is a contemporary phenomenon, the celebration of January 26 as a kind of birthday is not. Soon after white settlement, an “emancipist festival” was held on the date. In 1818, Lachlan Macquarie marked the day with a 30-gun salute.
But the history of caution is also well established. In 1938, the first president of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association, Jack Patten, inaugurated a Day of Mourning on January 26.
“On this day the white people are rejoicing, but we, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday …” Patten told a crowd at the Australian Hall on Elizabeth Street in Sydney. “This land belonged to our forefathers … Give us the chance! We do not wish to be left behind in Australia’s march to progress … We do not wish to be herded like cattle.”
The idea for this boycott came at a lunch, listening to Paul Keating describe political leadership.
His time as prime minister was perhaps the last era of genuine political will in this country, the last time Australia was truly optimistic about its identity. He excised the monarchy from the language of the parliament, gave new words to new ministers, replaced the oath of allegiance with a pledge of commitment. He changed with a single speech the place of Kokoda in our war history, kissing the earth at a place that was not Gallipoli. At Redfern, in a blaze of oratorical invention, he sought to remake the compact with Indigenous Australia.
“It begins, I think, with that act of recognition,” he said. “Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life … It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us … We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.”
The same is true when we celebrate Australia Day without considering what the date really symbolises, without asking what it would feel like to have the taking of your land marked with concerts and barbecues and ferryboat races. We are better than that.
Here is a list of incontestable facts. On January 26, 1788, Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove. He raised a Union Jack and declared the British settlement of the east coast of Australia. In doing this, he dispossessed our First Peoples. These were the first pages in a new history of trauma, of violence and land theft and marginalisation. The only escape from these facts is ignorance.
The case for a new Australia Day is a case for inclusion. It is about finding a new date for all Australia. Until this is done we will not be a whole country. Ours will be a heart of unconnected chambers.
The request to you, our readers, is simple: don’t celebrate dispossession. Stop marking Australia Day until it is a day for all. If you are a musician, don’t play the concerts. If you are a performer, don’t take the stages. If you are a family, don’t attend the festivities. By your own actions, speed the will on this uncomplicated change. Without the public to lead the politics of this, it will not happen.