When I was a boy, and indeed well into my twenties, Australia Day was a simple affair. It was a public holiday, marked on 26 January in the event that that fell on a Monday, but otherwise on the Monday following, thus providing a long weekend at the end of the summer holidays.
There was some awareness that the 26th itself was the “actual” day being commemorated, and some pedants would insist on calling that “Australia Day”, but it was normal to apply the term to the holiday Monday.
It was a more innocent time. And I think that when the majority of Australians (especially older Australians) tell pollsters that they want to keep the current Australia Day and oppose changing the date, what they’re often really saying, ironically enough, is that they miss that innocence and want to recapture it.
I say “ironically” because it was the very people who are now stoking that majority sentiment who destroyed our age of innocence by turning Australia Day into a nationalist festival – most obviously, by always celebrating it on the 26th, although the concession was later made of a holiday Monday if that date should fall on a weekend.
But innocence, once lost, is not easily regained. Once Australia Day became a site of historical memory rather than just a summer holiday, the field was open to those whose interpretation of history was different from – and, as it happened, more truthful than – that of the nationalists.
Specifically, it began to be pointed out, more and more insistently each year, that for our indigenous population the commemoration of 26 January meant the commemoration of dispossession, of invasion and genocide. A minority, but a growing one (particularly among the young), believes that that makes it an inappropriate date for national celebration.
Australia Day can be nationalistic, or it can be uncontroversial. But it cannot possibly be both.
As my friend Guy Rundle put it this time last year:
Australia Day was gone as soon as it could start to be questioned by more than a small minority of the population. …
Conservatives trying to turn this into a culture war are helping hurry January 26 to extinction – because as soon as the contested nature is acknowledged, what remains of the day’s mystique has been wholly surrendered.
Rundle argues that the “1960s-1990s characterless Australia Day,” which he and I both grew up with, had just “ceased to work,” but I’m not convinced that’s true. It didn’t die of its own accord; it was killed by the nationalists. I think that if we had just stuck with the long weekend instead of artificially trying to give it meaning, it’d probably be good for another few decades.
That question, however, is now academic: what’s gone is gone. I had warned about this as far back as 1983:
Surely the hallmark of the Australian people is that we have been free from the excessive Nationalism and ceremonialism that have plagued so many other countries. We have always been easy-going rather than formalistic, looking to the future rather than the past.
But the nationalists were not content with that, and having chosen to open the historical can of worms they have only themselves to blame.
Last time I wrote about this, nine years ago, I said that “the chance of winning popular support to rename the day or move it to some other time of year seems minimal. We’re stuck with Australia Day.” I’m no longer so sure about that; I think public opinion has shifted to the point that if diverse groups could settle on an alternative date (a big “if”), it might be possible for it to win majority support within another decade or so.
For anyone who thinks that’s either unlikely or undesirable, the best we can do is to try to dial back the nationalism; in Rundle’s words, to “mark it as a simple gesture to continuity” rather than freight it with a historical meaning that it won’t bear.
But I don’t like our chances. Happy Invasion Day, everyone!