The Great Debate: Should we change the date of Australia Day?

We asked two members of the UQ Debating Society to give us some considered arguments on whether to move Australia Day.

The Semper editors would accept thoughtful responses to these arguments to appear in the first print edition. Message us on facebook, or email us at semper@uqu.com.au.

The Case for Moving

Words: Joshua Taylor

Let’s start by acknowledging what the problem is. Despite the best and slightly hysterical efforts of the Murdoch-backed papers to find indigenous people who are happy with the date (e.g. Nigel Scullion’s tone deaf comment that no indigenous people have personally told him they want the date changed), for the vast majority of the indigenous community Australia Day is equated with Invasion Day. And for good reason. It was, as a point of fact, the day white men invaded Australia. Some say “it wasn’t an invasion”, to which I point out that when you (a) come to country unannounced, (b) kill and/or displace the people living there, and (c) set up shop, it certainly has all the facets of an invasion, terra nullius be damned.

For some indigenous Australians, January 26th is not offensive. And that’s fine. They will continue to be unoffended on any other day of the year.

Brisbane activists marching through CBD on Australia Day
Brisbane activists marched through the CBD today as part of an ‘Invasion Day’ rally Source: mickel07 on reddit

More importantly, many indigenous Australians proclaim to be at best offended, and at worst traumatised by celebrating Australia Day on that date. For good reason: imagine Germany celebrating “Germany Day” on the date of the opening of Auschwitz. (Note to those getting riled by this comparison: obviously the scale of harm is different. Obviously the point of Australia Day is not to dance on the graves of indigenous people. But the point remains that as a minority who has been affected by a majority group in the past, having a party on a date of mourning for you is quite affronting).

Some say, well, it is on them to not be offended. Offence is taken, not given, as it were, and no one means them any harm. This rather misses the point. As Warren Mundine writes “I want Australia Day moved — not because I don’t want to celebrate, but because I do.” Indigenous Australians have reason to be offended or confronted by the date; they have reason to feel that the country is ostracising or not representing them when it chooses that date specifically to say ‘hey – isn’t this date grand, this is who we are’. While the majority of Australians don’t intend to be malicious in celebrating the date, by not changing our position when told we are causing harm is to become malicious. Fair-minded members of a community listen to each other, they don’t get affronted when someone politely asks them to compromise.

Which begs the question then: why the fuck not? I would be on board with the justification of “we would love to help, but unfortunately X thing is super important and must take priority”. But it doesn’t exist here. The arguments are, in order of who-gives-a-fuckedness:

“We have always celebrated on this date”

The tradition argument. Wrong: we have only celebrated formally on this date since 1994. And even if we had celebrated on that date since Christ walked the earth – so what? Tradition is a crap argument for anything. It’s tautological. It says ‘we have always done x, therefore x should remain the same.’ This argument, by definition, excludes the possibility of debate or consideration of the merits. It precludes the possibility we were ever wrong. Consider, for instance: slavery, women’s rights, and those terrible 90’s Christmas movies as reasons why traditions should from time to time evolve.

“I want to celebrate Australia”

Good on you mate. And you can. There is nothing unique about January 26th as to why it is the best day to do it. Sausages taste just as good on any other day. Cricket and backyards exist on any other day. Family will still be there to piss you off on any other day.

“January 26th is the landing of the convict ships on Sydney Cove, and honestly I take this date to reflect on that monumental moment and how that has shaped my identity today”

Said no one ever. Actually, numerous surveys tell us that the majority of Australians do not know why we celebrate on that date. No-one reflects fondly on these events on these dates. The event itself is meaningless. Certainly, at least, less meaningful than other mighty occasions in Australia’s history, given that when they landed on the cove we weren’t even Australia yet.

“This buys into PC culture! What about white people who will be offended! What about Safe Schools?”

WHAT? Huh? Eh? This is the bastion of the stupid who are unable to debate a single proposition on its merits. The idea that we oppose a general trend, and therefore must, without consideration of the individual merits of a policy, reject it for fear we support a wider trend, is a logical fallacy. I am sure white people will recover from this egregious slight. I am sure our offence will subside. More to the point, I am sure that as a community, we can work together to build new norms that we can all agree with.

At the end of the day, many, if not all, indigenous Australians feel excluded. White people do not suffer from moving the date. At the point where we stamp our foot and hold our ground ‘on principle’, we send a powerful signal that uppity minorities best not complain about oppression. If we want indigenous Australians to feel part of our community, perhaps we should start by taking their opinions into consideration in community discussions, rather than manufacturing an outrage to a legitimate concern, just because the people who raised it are black.

The Case Against Moving

Words: William Want

It was not for 113 years after January 26th, 1788 that the continent of Australia, made up of British Colonies which later became states and territories, federated to become the Commonwealth of Australia. The year was 1901. It was only in 1935 that all of those states and territories subscribed to the idea of an Australia Day. It was ultimately decided, though the metric is unknown, that the day was to be the 26th of January, despite dates of competing importance.

However, it was on the 22nd of August 1770 that James Cook planted the Union Jack on Possession Island, in Queensland, and declared it for his King. But you won’t hear any Indigenous Australians talking about that. You won’t hear any non-indigenous Australians talking about that. What people are talking about is the 26th of January. This writer finds that strange. Arthur Phillip did not come as an invader.

What the experts say

Warren Mundine, an Indigenous leader, believes that Phillip was certainly a man who wanted to reach out to the indigenous people. In fact, Michael Pembroke, a judge and author, cites that Arthur Phillip in fact made law that there should be no slavery under his governance. His governance lasted until he sailed back to England in 1792, so even if complete bedlam ensued after his ship sailed over the horizon, that wasn’t for 4 years from the 26th of January, 1788.

Grace Hawkins, an Associate professor from the University of New South Wales, believes that Governor Arthur Phillip treated the natives “very well and very nicely”. It was, in fact, the orders from the British Empire to all Governors and Captains to be decent towards any native inhabitants they encountered. This writer grants that, of course, this ethos was not unilaterally undertaken by all governors and captains throughout British colonisation and settlement history. However, what it unequivocally does reveal is that Australia Day does not mark the beginning of “mass murders” or any other atrocity. The argument that Australia Day commemorates atrocities is not just historically wrong, but ideologically wrong.

You can find atrocities anywhere if you look close enough

This writer is not moved by any argument, coming from Indigenous Australians or not, that Australia Day commemorates anything remotely violent towards Indigenous Australians. Arguments have been made that the ANZAC spirit, which is often invoked as a spirit of which to be proud and celebrated, is rooted in violence. Australia has been a belligerent in many campaigns with mixed results. However, despite victory or defeat, some have been mythologised to sing of the triumph of Australian ‘diggers’. They are the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, the defence of Tobruk, the fall of Singapore and, certainly, the defence of Port Moresby along the Kokoda track.

Participating ‘diggers’ have been internalised to be exemplars of Australian tenacity, mateship, good-humour and defiance in the face of innumerable odds. Not cruelty or violence. No one has ever watched Gallipoli and gotten a real good kick out of seeing the Turkish shot. No one has ever watched the Desert Rats or The Light Horsemen and thought to themselves “Gee, I wish those Germans die slow horrible deaths”. Like, are you serious?

This writer raises the analogy to stress the thought processes that occur in each and every Australian who does choose to celebrate Australia Day. They are so much more nuanced than what move-the-date-sayers may push. The average garden Australian is not sheepishly dodging their own conscience about mass murders. We do not char up our snags so that the taste eschews the taste of our guilt. No one is having a pool party to celebrate the systematic denial of country to Indigenous Australians. There is no one proud of violence. No one is celebrating nastiness. Anyone openly violent in Australia is castigated in a heartbeat. “That’s un-Australian” is what we’d say. You’re at a barbecue or pool party or park afternoon and there’s nothing less Australian than a sook getting agro over the leisurely game of cricket. “They’re ruining Australia Day” is what we’d say.

So if January 26th doesn’t mark the start of atrocities, and the populous of those who celebrate Australia Day aren’t proud of violence or nastiness, what does it mark? What does it represent?

This writer would say that, on balance, Australia marks much of what is good, just and right about Australia. Citizenship ceremonies occur on Australia Day, literally welcoming people to country. Australian of the Year ceremonies occur, celebrating the achievements and successes of Australians from all creeds.

Survey says

Many Indigenous Australians consider the 26th of January Invasion Day or Survival Day. Many also don’t think much about it at all. A number of surveys from different institutions have sought participation from the wider Indigenous community to gauge whether or not they support or oppose the celebration of Australia Day on the 26th of January. What is troubling about these surveys is that they are inevitably limited. Historically, it has been almost impossible to accurately census Indigenous Australians. The accuracy of their census is one of the lowest of all demographics. How can any survey claim to have competently gauged the feelings of such a notoriously difficult to survey group? And, even if they had, how can we as non-indigenous policy makers decide what is right for 46% of a population? What if the indigenous community have feelings that are more nuanced than a bi-polar “yes, move it” and a “no, keep it”.

A number of surveys have been put out by various institutions. This writer doesn’t have the time or resources to collate the surveys and do a meta-analysis. Rather, this paper will go off some data put forward by the Australian Institute. Below are a number of results found therein:

The current date of Australia Day is offensive to Indigenous Australians

  • Agree: 37%
  • Disagree: 46%
  • Unsure: 17%

Australia Day should not be on a day that is offensive to Indigenous Australians

  • Agree: 47%
  • Disagree 36%
  • Unsure: 14%

I don’t mind when Australia Day is, as long as we have a day to celebrate being a nation

  • Agree: 56%
  • Disagree: 36%
  • Unsure: 8%

These are interesting results to a science student like this writer, because he could have sworn that if you did a factor analysis on the first two questions you should have got similar answers. But they’re not. Also note that “unsure” is not ambivalence. Unsure means that if you were to operationalise a response by actually changing the date, you would not actually be fulfilling the desire of any majority. That’s an argument which comes under the democracy banner, because you haven’t put these questions to any vote which sublimes them into tangible outcomes.

The last response says this: a slim majority don’t mind when Australia Day is.

The first two responses indicate it is incorrect, that is wrong to say:

  • “most people believe the 26th is offensive to Indigenous Australians
  • “most people believe it should not be on any date that is offensive to Indigenous Australians”

And even if you were to say that a (slim) majority did hold those beliefs, here are three powerful counter arguments:

Indigenous people remain divided on the issue

This writer is deeply saddened that Indigenous Australians were not given citizenship until 1967 and makes no defences for Australia’s previous governments’ appalling delay. But this writer is also under no illusion that many defiant and proud Indigenous people also probably celebrated their country on the 26th for many years. The idea that all Indigenous people are somehow representatively spoken for by televised and broadcasted elders is rampant and wrong. They are a diverse and nuanced demographic and ‘white man’ musn’t for a moment believe they can simplify them with a few surveys, interviews or token conversations.

Who are date changers to say that the feelings of the indigenous peoples (who are divided on the issue) are any more important than non-indigenous people? As sympathetic as I am, just as anyone is, I reject the notion that any individual’s feelings towards a national day are more important than any other individual. The fact of the matter is that the 26th has always been the day on which all Australians are invited to celebrate. Just because some people are unsure of their feelings towards the date does not mean that their opinions should defer to whatever soft majority holds. This leads to…

We should listen to indigenous elders

The arguments to change the date are often loudest and most vigorous from non-indigenous people. Indigenous leaders who advocate for the change of date speak for their own community only. They are highly educated and versed in what the day means for their community both symbolically and functionally. Non-Indigenous people who are quick to share social media posts and rally behind changing the date are almost exclusively under-educated on issues facing the Indigenous community. This writer makes no claims to be an expert on Indigenous health issues, finances, social and cultural specificity, employment, native title or unemployment. However, this writer can guarantee that the elders and leaders who advocate for changing the date advocate for many other reforms and changes. These elders sit on boards, panels, councils and even parliament. They dedicate their lives to positively improving the lives of their community. They have the skills to do it. Non-indigenous people who roar to change the date are rallying behind a very simplistic view of reconciliation. The functional improvements the lives of blackfulla from whitefulla echoing their “change the date” aspirations are miniscule. To fulfil reconciliation you actually have to reconcile the differences between Indigenous Australians and Non-Indigenous Australians.

The real improvements to the lives of Australia’s Indigenous populations comes when non-indigenous people rally behind elders, leaders, politicians and indigenous at all levels of social hierarchy and infrastructure and empower them to make functional, lasting change. This type of change is far more difficult. It takes far more thought, understanding, and action from non-indigenous people. Multiple levels of society must undertake action for it to be beneficial. It requires a concerted effort to flesh out the complexities of problems and not simply jump behind polarised campaigns. This writer believes that unfounded vigorous and feverish campaigning to change the date is lazy at best and ‘white man’s burden’ at worst.

January 26th is important to immigrants

There have been more waves of immigrants into Australia than overs in a test match. Immigrants from all over the world have flocked to Australia for its global reputation for warmth, welcoming, generosity, economic support, hell, even functioning police services that don’t extort small businesses for protection money. People from all over the world have been entrusting Australia with the futures of their families, or at the very least, contributing to Australian society and economy to support families in their home land.

Although every nation encounters waves of immigration throughout its history, Australia has had a rich and dense influx of particular refugees at certain points in history. Many of these people came to become citizens or permanent residents of Australia. By virtue of there being no efflux massive enough to register in Australian history, we can safely assume that most of these people enjoy Australia enough to stay. Many of these people fled intense persecution, pre-empted national schisms or were outright refugees of war. The government originally interned huge masses of immigrants as prisoners of war or ‘enemies within’. Most of these people chose to stay in Australia and become Australians during peacetime.

Many of those who wish to move the date want to say that a national holiday isn’t important to them? How dare they. This writer rejects the notion that Australia Day is in some way inherently more important to Indigenous Australians than others. Some Australians abandoned or fled their homes to start a life in Australia, of all the countries they could have chosen, over all the years. Some risked life and limb, and marginalisation in the beginning, to join Australians in this great country. The haven of Australia, the refuge, opportunity, joy and even survival itself is reified in Australia Day for many.

No one can compel this writer to believe that somehow these people are not fussed about the date.

This writer is deeply saddened by those in the indigenous community who are saddened by Australia Day. Many in those communities also call it survival day. However, they are not the only community who could rightly invoke that word.  

No one can tell this writer that one person’s opinion is more important than another’s.

Live on Australia Day. Live on Survival Day.

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