Misha Coleman in her article ‘Change the Date’ (Arena Magazine no. 152) set out the case for changing the date of Australia Day in recognition of the fact that 26 January represents the trauma of dispossession for Indigenous Australians.
As well as being a source of pain for Indigenous Australians, there are other reasons for questioning 26 January as an appropriate date for celebrating Australia’s nationhood.
First, as NSW Foundation Day, 26 January does not represent national unity. The date of British settlement on 26 January 1788 of a penal colony in just one state does not represent what binds Australia as a nation. Of significance to this point is that allegiance to Britain disqualifies Australians from being eligible to stand for election to our national parliament!
Second, there are practical considerations against the 26 January date. Being at the tail end of a long vacation period, its meaning as a national day is lost. Often students return to school after the long break to have a disruptive day off, to the concern of parents and teachers. Thus, few Australians actually celebrate 26 January as a national day. As Misha Coleman pointed out, 62 per cent of respondents in a recent poll did not know what the date commemorates.
Third, the fact that the 26 January date represents the founding of a penal colony contrasts with the origins of most national days around the world. Other nations celebrate their independence, fundamental changes in their form of governance or the creation of their constitution. Canada Day is the anniversary of the enactment of Canada’s Constitution Act on 1 July 1867, uniting the three separate colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the single dominion called Canada. American Independence Day on 4 July signifies the separation of the American colonies from the British Empire, as does Indian Independence Day on 15 August. Bastille Day in France commemorates the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 and the unity of the French Fête de la Federation on 14 July 1790. Australia is unique in not having a national day symbolic of its creation as a political entity.
Fourth, what really marks Australia as a nation is its own remarkable formation from disparate states and territories into a united federation. Professor Greg Craven in a 1993 parliamentary paper highlighted the lack of recognition of the momentous work of Australia’s national founders—Edmund Barton, Alfred Deakin, Chris Watson and George Reid—in achieving Federation. Describing the constitutional conventions of the 1890s as ‘probably the most politically accomplished assemblies ever to convene in Australian history’, Craven highlights that the constitutional founders who steered these conventions towards Federation are less known in Australia than are America’s founders Jefferson and Madison.
This neglect of Australia’s founders and our Constitution has much to do with our national day being focused on the settlement of Sydney as a penal colony. In turn, this has led to a lack of knowledge of our federal Constitution.
Recognising the day—9 July 1900—when the Australian Constitution Act became law would help remedy this lack of knowledge of our history. Australia Day on 9 July would place the focus on the need for national unity and on how our founders settled in 1900 the balance between centralised and state powers. This took a decade of debate and two constitutional referenda.
An alternative date is 9 May, as suggested by national affairs editor of The Age Mark Kenny. The first sitting day of the federal parliament in Melbourne took place on 9 May 1901; this date was also when the national parliament moved from Melbourne to open in Canberra in 1927, and when the new Parliament House opened in 1988.
The disadvantage of 9 May is that it focuses on the federal parliament rather than on how our federal system was created to balance central and state powers. The Australian nation, comprising three tiers of government, is far more than a federal parliament. To focus on the federal tier skews understanding of what forms our nation, its representative institutions across the country and its particular constitutional balance.
Neither alternative date would have its significance lost like 26 January at the end of the summer holidays. Either 9 May or 9 July would offer the opportunity to examine our history in schools and in the media. The July date offers a prominent public holiday at a time when there are no national public holidays between Easter and September (apart from the June Queen’s Birthday, which will likely cease). A July date is, in any event, often celebrated informally by a winter Christmas as people seize on something to celebrate to combat the midwinter blues.
The 26 January date is significant. As Greg Smithers concluded in The Age recently about the cities of Darebin and Yarra resolving to challenge 26 January as Australia Day, ‘both have given the rest of the nation a good place to get this important conversation started’.