Opinion Pieces

Australia Day: A respectful, unified path beyond bitter annual debate

Every year there is a debate about Australia Day. In a democracy like Australia, this is healthy.

Sadly, Australia Day receives more focus than the Uluru Statement, which contains nation-building reforms that would unite, rather than divide the country. It isn’t new; 1930s Aboriginal activist Jack Patten said on January 26, 1938: “On this day, the white people are rejoicing. But we, as Aboriginals, have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday.”

Australia’s birthday is actually January 1, 1901. But Patten’s point was Australia is home to a civilisation dating back 65,000 years that is ignored and displaced. Throughout my lifetime, the public debate and understanding of why it is a sensitive day has developed and matured. There is now a much better sense in Australia of why January 26 is a difficult date for many Indigenous people.

When I wrote a book on reconciliation and the Uluru Statement last year, I deeply considered my own position on Australia Day. I am a strong proponent of the Uluru Statement and its Indigenous voice because it is a contribution to nation-building. It is about completing our Constitution and giving Indigenous people a say over special laws, impacting only them, which are made by our parliament.

I hope we can deliver a constitutional amendment to guarantee the voice during the next parliament. Constitutional reform, which empowers people and completes the Constitution, is more important than a date.

Australia Day should not be moved. Rather it should continue its augmentation and be complemented with a new national day for which there are three reasons.

First, changing dates is a denial of the truth, which the Uluru Statement calls for. The truth is Australia is a very good country, but it has often been a bad country for Indigenous people. Our history has been both good and bad.

There is no denying that January 26, 1788 was a significant date in our history. We shouldn’t paper over this fact. It would be a denial of Charlie Perkins’s quip, “we don’t live in the past but the past lives in us”.

It is unnecessary to choose between a “black armband” or “three cheers” view of Australian history. This false choice dominated debates of the 1990s and did little to advance the nation.

We are getting better at telling the truth. When I went to school, we were taught a fairly uncritical view of John Batman of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). We were taught about his attempt at a “treaty” in the Port Phillip District (Victoria). But I recall no mention of Batman’s involvement in Tasmania’s massacres.

Today, there is a much better understanding of the Black Line policies of Tasmania’s past, which features in our schools. Recent books by Henry Reynolds and Cassandra Pybus on Tongerlongeter and Truginini have highlighted the shameful destruction of life and Batman’s likely involvement.

More truth will be told thanks to the creation of the new $300m Ngurra precinct inside Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle. This first major Indigenous institution inside the Parliamentary Zone will promote cultural and historical endeavours, including the interment of remains taken abroad. Ngurra should be used in the ceremonial opening of parliament in the years ahead.

Second, there is no consensus among the Indigenous, let alone wider community on the date.

Beyond the loud protests in favour of change, there are thoughtful Indigenous leaders who argue against changing it. Noel Pearson says it should be on January 25-26 to reflect Indigenous and British contributions.

Stan Grant says: “Australia Day is more than a day, it is more than a date – whatever that date may be … I fear moving the date would only hand it to those who would reclaim it as a date of white pride …”

Linda Burney says: “January 26 is a reminder not only of the dispossession and injustice but also our strength and survival as a people and as a culture … By all means, celebrate Australia Day, but let’s use it as a day of reflection as well.” Many others do want the date changed, but that remains a minority position.

Third, Australia Day is evolving to incorporate the full expression of our history in a respectful manner. In Sydney, the first point of contact, the day begins with the WugulOra (one mob) morning ceremony at Barangaroo with Land Council chair councillor Yvonne Weldon. There is a traditional smoking ceremony that burns through the previous night on Goat Island (Me-Mel). The National Australia Day Council under Danni Roche has adopted the tagline “Reflect, Respect, Celebrate. We’re all part of the story”. Australia Day has evolved. It is now inclusive of the stories of all Australians, in particular, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

I believe we could go further and establish another day to commemorate and celebrate our country’s future together. If Australia Day is about our yesterday and our today, the adjoining next day could be about our tomorrow.

We could call this new public holiday Australia’s “Buraadja Day”, which means tomorrow in the Dhurga language of the Yuin people of NSW. This day could also incorporate a concept I have long favoured, a formal declaration of recognition of Indigenous people.

On the first Buraadja Day, Australia’s declaration of recognition could be officially tabled and permanently inscribed near the Ngurra precinct in Canberra.

This way, we’d be telling the truth about our past and moving forward with respect, confidence and honesty. Together.

Andrew Bragg is a Liberal senator for NSW.

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