It’s that time of the year again. Heatwaves. Cricket on the radio. The Aussie Open on the telly. And of course, the perennial debate - Australia Day, move it or lose it. In this article, I want to discuss what are for me personally the two most important reasons why I oppose changing the date of Australia Day. But before I do, here’s a quick snapshot of where I stand with regard to the pros and cons of the most common arguments surrounding a date change.
Jumping up and down about changing the date consumes time and energy – and distracts from the more important problems facing Aboriginal people. That is definitely a reason why I oppose a date change. I’d gladly change the date if the protesters then swapped their ‘No pride in genocide’ posters for ‘Stop the community violence’ - but I can’t see that happening. Can you?
I’m also convinced that changing the date won’t help Aboriginal people in any practical way. Just these two reasons alone are, in my opinion, reason more than enough to not change the date.
I will concede that the date has been changed before, but that for me is not a good reason for changing it again. I can also agree with them that it is easy to change the date, but again that alone is not a good reason for changing it.
It is argued: “It won’t hurt to change the date” and “Change it so we can move forward together.” Superficially, these look like valid and compelling arguments. But it is these two arguments that I think are the most harmful to race relations and Aboriginal people, and I will explain why.
With regard to the first, I believe that changing the date does have the potential to hurt Aboriginal people. Not physically, but it may disempower them and reduce their agency. Those claiming to be upset or traumatised by celebrations on 26 January want to believe that it is the celebrations on that date that cause them to be upset. They
further believe that if the date for celebrations was changed, they would no longer be upset on 26 January. Their happiness then depends on whether celebrations occur on 26 January or not. This means that their emotions are controlled by whoever controls the date. Changing the date would send the poisonous message: “Well, my suffering on 26 January must have been real or else the government would not have changed the date.” In a sense they become puppets whose strings are pulled by those who control the date of Australia Day celebrations. How is that helpful to anyone?
Changing the date in and of itself is not a problem for Aboriginal people. Changing it in response to the claim that Aboriginal people can’t be happy on that day is a problem; it’s both disempowering and patronising.
For the second reason, what exactly does moving forward together look like? If it means getting along with one another, then to a very large degree that is already happening. A look at the intermarriage rate shows that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are moving forward together very well – and have been for some time. Admittedly, while many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in this country get along well, presumably because they recognise that the commonalities they share far outweigh the differences, there is room for improvement.
However, that improvement should not be dependent on changing a date, or making a national apology, changing the constitution, or any other symbolic gesture. What it takes for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to get along with each other is goodwill, and there seems to be a lot of it on both sides. What is hindering ‘moving forward together’ is the loud noise of that very vocal minority who want to “burn Australia,” dwell on the past, and portray Aboriginal people as perpetual victims of endless racism.
Or maybe moving forward together means Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people sharing in equal levels of health, wellbeing, and standard of living? Most Australians want that. But how will changing the date close the gap?
But if we are forced to go down the path of a date change, then how’s this for a reasonable compromise: Make Australia Day the third Monday of January each year, and still make sure it’s a public holiday, and a long weekend at that! Bearing well in mind that Australia has been called the land of the long weekend! After all, it’s the holiday that’s most important to a lot of us. Every so often our new National Day would fall on 26 January, so all the attention seekers who need to play victim can do so to their hearts’ content. The rest of us Aussies – all of us – will celebrate what a bloody great country Australia is.