Australia Day: Past, present and future
Noel Pearson says there are three narratives that make Australia – the story of the longest continuous living culture on Earth; the tale of the British colonial project and the institutions that have helped shaped our society; and the narrative of the most successful multi-ethnic, multicultural nation on the planet.
Every time we walk the street, we see these three narratives unambiguously intertwined. The influence of the Westminster form of representative democracy, the judiciary, Indigenous knowledge, history, people, our landscape, the faces of our friends and families, the food we eat, the language we hear and speak. These narratives are inescapable. But for some Australians, these narratives seem in conflict, antithetical to each other, and they seek a world where one dominates the others to prove a superiority.
This battle flares most significantly in the weeks leading up to January 26 – the questions around who owns the date, what it means and what we do on the day that makes us Australian. We find ourselves, once again, in this time of heightened tension.
At Sydney Festival in 2019 we are inviting residents and visitors down to Barangaroo Reserve to sit a vigil from dusk of January 25 until dawn on the 26th. It is designed to serve as a ritual reflection on the day before it all changed, to consider the impact of the arrival of the First Fleet; on the people, the culture and the landscape. The loss of life and the survival. The vigil is an attempt at finding a process of remembering.
As we approach the 250th anniversary of Cook’s claiming of this continent for the British Crown, it is important to put our modern Australia into the picture and to use this next anniversary as a tool to understand who we are now, rather than the promotion of a single national narrative.
Australia Day dates back to 1915, with a series of World War I fundraising activities, but the date then was not January 26 – a date as divisive then as it is now – but rather July 30. Subsequently, it was held on Friday July 28, 1916; Friday, July 27, 1917; and Friday, July 26, 1918. It was the days of cash pay packets handed out on a Thursday, and one can assume Fridays were the best days to collect pledges and donations. With the usual Australian pragmatism, the date changed to whatever best suited the cause.
Then with the end of the war, there was a sense that our newly traumatised infant nation needed a national day, alongside our national capital, national currency, the beginnings of our national war memorial and other founding national paraphernalia to mark our nationhood. We were overcome with imperial spirit and strong bonds to our colonial history. Between the wars, though, January 26 was a contentious date for a national day as it was also New South Wales’ Foundation Day.
About 1930, the oddly named Australian Natives’ Association (ANA) advocated the adoption of this date, but clarified that celebrations should be held on the closest Monday – so as to make a long weekend at the end of January. Some records call it ANA Day – the Australian Natives’ Association was open only to Australian-born white men. So, the white men in charge in our national capital and state parliaments put up resistance until 1935. Australia Day was just three years old when the first Indigenous protest occurred, with the instigation of the Day of Mourning in 1938 – the same year crowds gathered in Sydney for the unpronounceable sesquicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet.
On the Day of Mourning, Indigenous Australians and their supporters marked the impact of colonisation, demanded full rights as citizens and mourned the loss of life experienced in their communities. They gathered at the steps of Sydney Town Hall, which was to be the site of the inaugural Day of Mourning Congress, until the Sydney City Council refused their booking. So they marched the streets of Sydney to the aptly named Australia Hall in Elizabeth Street. After decades of petitions and protestations, January 26, 1938 was chosen as the most appropriate date to call attention to the Australian experience, to question Australian identity and to shine a light on our history from an Indigenous perspective. Just a day earlier, on January 25, 1938, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons met with delegates from the Day of Mourning to hear their grievances. But the story goes that Lyons’ primary motivation was in meeting a famous young footballer named Doug Nicholls, then in his groundbreaking playing career’s final year, rather than having any true interest in the cause. Whatever the truth, the fact is that on the day before the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, the leader of the country sat down to talk with First Nations leaders.
The Day of Mourning has been marked each year since. In that, Australia Day is not much older than the Indigenous protests of its commemoration.
By 1988, the “bicentenary”, terms such as Survival Day and Invasion Day were in common usage. The Day of Mourning continued and the “Celebration of a Nation” jingle was everywhere. The Day of Mourning attracted huge crowds to march the streets of every Australian capital, commemorating not only the losses but also the survival of First Nations Australians. This was also the year that the date of Australia Day was temporarily changed, from the traditional Monday, the 25th, which would have made a long weekend, to the actual date of the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival on Tuesday, January 26. For most Australians, the change was fine – they took an extra-long weekend. Lasting just a year, this exuberant investment in national identity started the ball rolling for a permanent change. By 1994, the states and territories unified under a national public holiday, held on January 26.
The Change the Date campaign has its roots in the Day of Mourning, but has been thrown into stark focus in recent years. Somehow, I can see the value in a long weekend at the end of summer. To be forcibly reminded of the First Fleet, though, then unsympathetically brought into the modern context, it starts to take on quite a different character. Who can erase the memory of a massive warship sitting in Circular Quay during Sydney’s Australia Day events in the past few years? This modern-day re-enactment of the arrival of military might is chilling, and is not lost on all those gathered.
In the end, it is the lack of acknowledgement of Australia’s three narratives on our national day that has us all questioning the date. Unlike the United States, which has three dates to acknowledge its foundation and history, we try, unsuccessfully and inarticulately, to force everything into one day. Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and Independence Day are allowed to have different traditions and rituals dating back as far as 500 years. In Australia, we lack the traditions, ceremonies and rituals that can enhance our national identity during a national day. The rituals we have are, arguably, having a barbecue and a few drinks, lamb ads, jingoistic nationalism, weird re-enactments, fireworks, driving around with an Australian flag hanging out the back window, and, until recently, the Triple J Hottest 100. For the lucky few, there are naturalisation ceremonies, during which those who have recently arrived become part of the nation of Australia.
For guidance, I think we need to look to our other national commemoration, Anzac Day. Despite being international, it is a much older and clearer example of how we could shape a day that tells the story of our country. And how we tell these stories matters. On April 25, we start with a dawn service full of poetry, music, symbolism, a minute’s silence, quiet reflection and a sense of the dawn of a new day; followed by a march where we pay respect to those who have served, consider the human price of war and the sacrifice of family members. That’s then followed by family gatherings and old mates sharing some time together to yarn, exchange stories and memories, a trip to a pub, and a game of two-up. Over time, Anzac Day has developed traditions and commemorations that can access great pain, show respect and after an appropriate sense of ceremony, celebrate life and survival and peace through a party.
Change the date, don’t change the date – I am agnostic. I think a national day could be a valuable tool in the binding of a nation, but only if it finds ways of including the three narratives, as Pearson has described them. I can imagine a three-stage national day of the future, one that stretches from our long First Nations history, through the narrative of the British arrival, to the waves of immigrant arrivals and life here now. Past, present and future.
Sydney Festival takes place from January 9-27. See www.sydneyfestival.org.au for more information, including further information on the vigil on January 25.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Australia Day: Past, present and future". Subscribe here.