Prime Minister Scott Morrison has floated the idea of a new national holiday to recognise the achievements of Indigenous Australians. The proposal is a pre-emptive strike against what he called the “indulgent self-loathing” of those who want to shift Australia Day from 26 January to a date that is inclusive and respectful of Indigenous people.
There is much in Australia’s history to celebrate. There is much that is shameful. The choice of a national day is a statement about what it means to be Australian and, by extension, who is left as an outsider. This is more than just symbolism.
The Byron Shire Council in NSW recently announced it will stop holding Australia Day celebrations on 26 January. The federal government swiftly moved to remove the council’s rights to hold citizenship ceremonies – a common Australia Day practice that many councils across the country have discontinued in recognition of what the day may mean for Indigenous people.
In the past, public discussion about the appropriateness of the date of the national day usually only happened in the days leading up to 26 January. It is significant that only weeks into his prime ministership and four months before the day, Morrison has chosen to intervene in a debate that he could easily have left alone.
His move suggests that the balance of opinion is shifting, and some concession to Indigenous objections to Australia Day is required to preserve the acceptability of the national holiday to a growing number of Australians.
Beyond the debate over Australia Day
But an alternative holiday for Indigenous people doesn’t address the fundamental arguments against celebrating nationhood on a day that cannot avoid causing offence to some citizens.
The only moral defence in favour of celebrating Australia Day on 26 January is to somehow find a way to make it genuinely inclusive. Proponents of the day, particularly Morrison, need to show the political vision that takes the country beyond the dispossession and exclusion that Australia Day represents for some people.
In response to the idea of a separate day to celebrate Indigenous achievements, Indigenous Invasion Day rally co-organiser Tarneen Onus-Williams said :
It’s about genocide, it’s not about our achievements.
Celebration is hard when government agencies themselves admit that the systematic exclusion of Indigenous peoples from public decision-making persists and partly explains the depth of policy failure in Indigenous affairs.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart shows that this exclusion is neither necessary nor inevitable. Yet celebration is hard to align with the government’s continued rejection of a guaranteed Indigenous voice to parliament and Morrison’s false claim that this would constitute a “third chamber”.
Labor MP Linda Burney, the first Indigenous woman elected to the federal House of Representatives, has argued that Uluru’s substantive constitutional and political proposal is vastly more important than changing the date of Australia Day, which she says is “a very narrow way to look at the issue of Indigenous affairs”.
Indeed, raising public awareness of the lasting impacts of colonisation has been an ongoing process for many years. Reconciliation gained momentum with the Mabo and Wik decisions of the High Court, and the inquiries into Indigenous deaths in custody and the removal of Indigenous children from their families.
However, much work remains to be done. True reconciliation requires serious political transformation to allow Indigenous peoples real authority over their own affairs and capacities to participate in public decision-making.
The importance of symbolism
Celebrating Australia Day on 26 January, in its current form, is an obstacle to reconciliation.
But substance, symbol and celebration are closely related. It is still reasonable for an inclusive and respectful nation to aspire to celebrate its national day. Australia’s national day needs to be forward-looking and aspire to inclusive nationhood.
January 26 is an important day of reflection and commemoration. A day of public memory where one thinks about the good and the bad in the development of Australian nationhood. It ought not be a day where the good is celebrated and the not so good hidden away. Rather, it needs to be a day of truth-telling – a path to what the Uluru Statement calls Makarrata:
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
“Coming together” is a difficult, though worthy aspiration. Its achievement partly depends on what the country chooses to celebrate on its national day and why. This is more than just symbolically important – it has deep, practical implications for what it means to be part of a national community.
If, as Morrison has acknowledged, white settlement of Australia involved “a few scars from some mistakes and some things that you could’ve done better”, he might develop a meaningful plan for doing better.
If we need an alternative to 26 January as the day to celebrate Indigenous Australians, we are saying that a common and shared nationhood is not possible - a very clear statement of who is in and who is out.