This week marked the observation of Australia’s national day. Unlike most national days throughout the world, Australia Day has become less a day of national celebration and more a day of national scrutiny. The date Australia Day commemorates has increasingly been recognized as one not of national pride, but one of considerable pain to Indigenous Australians. What the country is currently going through is a reckoning with its past, a process that has the potential to forge a new conception of the Australian nation.
There are two main problems with Australia’s current national day. The first is that it marks January 26, 1788, the day that a British fleet of ships first made a formal claim on Australian soil in the name of the British Crown. At the time there was a conception among the European powers that any people who didn’t have similarly organized societies to Europe – with permanent settlements, property rights, and forms of political organization understood by Europeans – didn’t hold genuine sovereignty over their lands, and therefore these lands were able to be taken by force.
For Australia to celebrate its national day marking such an occasion is clearly an affront to Indigenous Australians. It represents the dispossession of their land, the disruption of their way of life, and the introduction of often brutal forms of abuse and repression. These are conditions that still have highly negative knock-on effects to this day. As a result, to Indigenous Australians, Australia Day is Invasion Day. A great many non-Indigenous Australians are also now recognizing this.
The second problem with the date of Australia’s national day is that it commemorates a date 113 years before the modern Australian state came into existence. It was only on January 1, 1901 that the six separate British colonies on the continent federated into a single entity, a constitution became effective, and the state we recognize as Australia today was born. Nationalism is always inclined to try and reach further back into history for emotional legitimacy, but in logical and practical terms the Australian state came into being only in 1901.
If Australia were to look toward its close political cousin in Canada – a country with a similar colonial history – it would see that its national day is when the modern Canadian state was created with the federation of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia in 1867. It is a day that not only makes both logical and practical sense, but also a spiritual kind of sense.
Although both the modern Australian and Canadian states have not been kind to their Indigenous peoples, states and nations are evolving entities. They are capable of changing what they value, how they behave, and broaden who they include. A national day that recognizes that an evolving journey has begun – like in Canada – has a greater moral authority than Australia’s national day that still celebrates an act of colonial conquest.
Yet to Australia’s credit, this is a debate that is now mainstream. Australia Day has become a day of national self-scrutiny. It is a day to question what Australia’s national symbols are and to discuss ways to improve them. All the country’s major media outlets now engage in commentary about the meaning of Australia Day and whether there are better options for the country. This national introspection is an uncommon attribute among modern nation-states – where national days often involve uncritical displays of national chauvinism.
Of course, this debate is often not as polite and contemplative as that description may suggest. The day has become notable for its large protests that take over the streets of its major cities, as well as the stubborn recalcitrance of those who instinctively resist change and remain emotionally tied to symbols of British heritage – the Australian flag being another symbol that is incongruous to modern Australia and, surely, has only a limited lifespan.
Yet protests and resistance to change are all a natural part of how a nation comes to terms with itself. They inspire some and repel others, but these movements keep the ideas about how Australia should understand and promote itself at the forefront of people’s minds. These contests of ideas represent the transition period Australia is currently in – one that acknowledges the brutality of the past, but also recognizes the realities of the present.
There is no ability to undo past wrongs, but there is an opportunity to evolve the idea of Australia toward being a country that all citizens can feel comfortable with. This year the government of the state of Victoria scrapped its usual Australia Day parade, and it is likely that other states will eventually follow suit. Momentum suggests that soon January 26 will cease to be Australia’s national day. As this date dissolves in the national psyche, it is now time for the country to focus on what should replace it.