So, here we are again. It’s Australia Day, or Invasion Day, in Australia, with the absurdity of a public holiday on a Thursday, even before you get to the various other absurdities associated with it.
You can go back and read what I wrote for the occasion four years ago. The key point is this:
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. …
Australia Day can be nationalistic, or it can be uncontroversial. But it cannot possibly be both.
The debate has not advanced much since then, but every year the defenders of our current Australia Day sound a bit more forlorn and anachronistic. And they remain trapped by the basic contradiction over what they are trying to defend: is this a nationalistic festival, in which case it veers easily into crude racism (Indigenous people need to “get over it”), or is it just a good old Australian holiday at risk of being ruined by troublemakers?
The latter sentiment is easier to sympathise with. Clearly there are still many people who, while bearing no ill-will towards Indigenous people, would just like to enjoy the holiday and not worry about the politics. Pointing out (as I did in 2019) that the nationalists were the ones who ruined that option back in the 1980s and ’90s does not destroy that longing.
But it cannot now be satisfied. Even if one were to accept, for the sake of argument, that the controversy is all the fault of left-wing troublemakers, and that if they would only shut up about it then everything would be fine, that would not change the fact that they are not going to shut up, and that a date that is politically controversial cannot also be a symbol of national unity.
A reminder of that lesson came earlier this month, from Greece, with the death of former king Constantine II. Constantine was a controversial figure; nominally he spent ten years on the throne, but he only ruled for three: from 1964 to 1967, when a military coup, which he had initially tolerated but then tried to undo, forced him into exile.
The military government fell in 1974, and the new civilian government held a referendum on the future of the monarchy. The vote was 69.2% in favor of a republic; Constantine accepted the decision and remained in exile. Only in 2013, at the age of 73, did he return to live his last years in Athens, by which time passions had cooled. Even so, Greece’s centre-right government did not offer a state funeral, although the deputy prime minister attended the private service.
The argument made for constitutional monarchy is that the monarch can be a unifying figure, symbolically representing national identity in a way that an elected president never could. Sometimes it works, but not often. The Greek monarchy had been a focus of dispute even before Constantine, with kings taking sides in politics and being widely seen to represent not the nation as a whole, but particular class interests.
Once that unifying role has been lost (or never achieved), no amount of rhetoric can bring it back. It’s no good pointing out – even if it’s true – that the dissenters are being unreasonable or that if they would keep quiet things would be all right. Even putting the most charitable interpretation on Constantine’s actions, the loss of confidence in him was fatal to the monarchy.
Nor do the exact numbers matter much. Constantine could have won, say, 55% support in the referendum and his position still would have been untenable. Leopold III was supported by 57.7% for his return to the Belgian throne in 1950, but it turned out not to be enough; he was obliged to abdicate in favor of his son. A government can manage perfectly well just with majority support, but a symbol of unity cannot.
And so it is with Australia Day. Whatever might have been possible thirty years ago, there is no longer any alternative to having a genuine discussion about the holiday and making difficult decisions – political decisions – about its meaning and future. That discussion has begun, but it still has a long way to go.