Sunday, February 1

Let's have many "conversations" about our national day

Back on Australia Day two years ago, Grumpy Old Journo posted this suggestion that we celebrate our national day a week later:

Sometimes, when I'm feeling mischievous, I suggest European settlement of Australia really began with a drunken orgy on February 6. Perhaps we should observe that date as Australia Day.

After all, it's the day white women joined the settlement.

On that day in 1788, after the male convicts had laboured for more than a week setting up rudimentary buildings at Sydney Cove, it was time to land the women convicts. The disembarkation took all day.

Then the sailors asked for rum “to make merry with upon the women quitting the ships.” From contemporary accounts, all that night there were scenes of debauchery and riot which beggared description. Even a sudden Sydney thunderstorm could not drown the revelry.

Nobody putting their hands up for February 6? What a lot of wowsers we've become!

More seriously, how about January 1? In 1901, that was the day on which Australia became a nation, rather than an assortment of British colonies. It would be a day for all Australians – it's not for nothing that many Aboriginal activists refer to January 26 as Invasion Day.

On Australia Day this year, when Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson – co-author of the Bringing Them Home report which told Australians about the Stolen Generations – received the honour of Australian of the Year, he pushed the issue back into public debate.

After first saying he had considered rejecting the honour because January 26 represented a “day of mourning” for his people, Professor Dodson moderated his words and asked for a “conversation” about the date on which we celebrate Australia Day.

Your grumpy old blogger trembled. Surely the appeal would see every ratbag crawl out from under a rock to sneer at the idea of accommodating the feelings of Aboriginal Australians. It's true that a few did – the same old predictable names. Grumpy Old Journo didn't post a comment at the time, preferring to sit back and think it over.

But overall, we had a mature debate. A worthwhile conversation. Most of those who blogged or wrote to newspapers understood the view of many Aboriginal Australians. But at the same time, most agreed with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd – “respectfully, no” – to any change.

With some misgivings, and with a plea to indigenous friends to understand my views, I agree with the Prime Minister. But my reasons may differ.

Today, it's not easy to select an alternative date. Some have been suggested, but few really commend themselves.

The landing of the First Fleet convicts, guards and officers in 1788 (and the claiming of Aboriginal land as British territory) did represent a milestone in the development of the Australian nation – although it also introduced the disease, dispossession and exploitation that did untold damage to the original Australians. Most reasonable people today accept that interpretation.

But the arrival of the Brits would, over time, also bring some of the benefits of the European Enlightenment, along with a robust legal system and the foundations of political structures essential to the development of a nation in the modern world.

Today, we are well along the path of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. We will have many more “conversations” before we get to our destination. Perhaps some date symbolic of that arrival would serve as Australia day.

But I would like to see Australia reach another milestone which could mark our national day of celebration. It would be the day on which Australian became a republic. A republic which acknowledged its debt to Britain, along with that to its indigenous people, and indeed, to all those, Australian-born or immigrant, who have come together to make up our nation.

That would be the day it became possible for an Australian to be our head of state – not a British hereditary monarch who must, by 18th century English law, be a member of the Church of England.

But that's another conversation, isn't it?

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