In the USA they celebrate Independence Day, the day in 1776 that 13 colonies of the American mainland declared independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. It would take centuries for that nation to ban slavery, to stop the dispossession of its native inhabitants, and for the nation to rise as a super power. However Americans today recognise this as the most defining day in the history of the United States of America.
In France they celebrate Bastille Day, the day in 1789 where enraged Parisian citizens stormed the fortress prison known as the Bastille, turning the tide of the revolution. What ensued was the infamous ‘Terror’ that saw thousands executed, including the actual leaders of the revolution. Napoleon would go on to annex most of Europe in military conquest and the French Empire would colonise much of the world in brutally oppressive fashion. Paris fell to Hitler and it eventually lost its empire. Yet the French people today recognise this as the most defining day in the history of the French Republic.
In Australia we celebrate Australia Day, the day in 1788 that a fleet of ships carrying convicts from the British Empire arrived in Sydney Harbour. The majority of the men and women on that ship were the down trodden and forsaken from England or political prisoners from throughout its Empire. They had been transported against their will to a land they knew nothing about. The decades that followed would be filled with near starvation, intolerable hardship, and occasional mutiny. For the indigenous on the shore that witnessed their arrival it would signal the beginning of the demise of their ancient culture and bring them to the edge of annihilation. Yet for all Australians today, this is the most defining day in the history of Australia.
The debate around our national day confuses what we are celebrating. We are not glorifying the history of that day, we are celebrating what has become of us since that day.
No Australian raises a beer to the convict, shackled and ragged as he was led upon the shore against his will, in fact we are taught of the tragedy and injustice that brought him there. No Australian pauses to remember the aristocratic English officer who no doubt treated his captives with contempt and thought very little of the very country we now call home. There were no heroes that day that we glorify, and no great ideals upon which this nation was founded upon. But something special happened that day that is simply too important to ignore.
On the 26th January 1788, this island continent inherited hundreds of years of English common law and the foundations of the Westminster System of Parliamentary Democracy. These two factors alone are the single greatest reasons behind the success of the Australian nation today.
Our wealth, our stability, our cherished peace, all are due to the fact that our nation inherited these systems of governance on this day.
Just like the rest of the world, we would spend centuries evolving our morality, making mistakes, learning what is right and what is wrong, and we are still learning today. The 26th January 1788 was not the greatest day in our history, it was the day in which our path to greatness began.
There is simply no other day in Australia’s history that could be considered in the same class in terms of the manner in which it has defined us. The only day that comes close in importance is the founding of the commonwealth which finds us awkwardly double parked on New Years Day.
I recognise that we as a people need to be aware of the tragedy that has befallen the indigenous people of this land. There needs to be a day of reflection, commemoration, and proclamation. I strongly support the need for this. But this should not be conflated with the purpose of Australia Day, a day of broad national celebration for our democracy and community. I believe a national holiday, in lieu of the Queen’s Birthday perhaps (which no one actually celebrates) should be set aside to specifically focus on the world’s oldest culture and its amazing history. I do not see why the push for an indigenous day of recognition needs to come at the expense of one of our most cherished national holidays.
Australia Day has never been a day of solemn reflection; it has always been a celebration of the nation as we stand today. Any attempt to redefine how Australians should celebrate Australia Day will invariably lead to a divisive resentment.
Moving the date risks turning Australia Day into a martyr for nationalists instead of the day of unity we strive to make it now. It will be perceived as a massive over reach in the name of political correctness and become a rallying cry of the far right. It won't erase Australia Day, it will hand it on a silver platter to those groups who currently misuse it as a day of misplaced nationalism.
Across the country countless events and traditions have been built up especially for this time of year. Moving the holiday to an arbitrary and meaningless day would not erase our history, if anything it instead chooses to ignore our history, something Australia Day has never sought to do.
You see since that day in 1788, a handful of Convicts, a stoic few members of the Indigenous population, and millions of immigrants from around the world looking for a better life, would eventually come together and, against all the odds, slowly build one of the greatest nations in the world. This, I believe, is a reason to celebrate.