What Are We Celebrating?

Australia, History, Politics

Toby Caro

It is January 24 and the annual outrage of two days’ time is burning expectedly hot. Conversation is stained with the vitriol of disagreement as people condemn each other before they listen to a word.

The usual debate surrounding Australia day is between staunch conservatives who relish the tradition of the celebration, and indigenous voices decrying the hypocrisy of cherry-picking choice parts of colonial history. The contemporary Australia Day represents a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and such passionate points of view are not easily reconciled.

There is no doubt that it is ridiculous to presume a legitimate and continuous government can celebrate an historic event in part. Things happen and they need to be taken for what they are.

Similarly, it is important to recognise that there are indigenous people indifferent to January 26, apathetic to the celebration, or wholly and genuinely disinterested. There are also many white Australians very quick to appropriate such outrage and laud their own position as a herald of virtue.

That is not to say that there is not a significant population whereby Australia Day 2020 represents anything except pain, violence and exclusion.

Passing over what January 26 means now, with our multitude of retrospectively applied ideas, what does the date actually represent?

To be frank, on January 26, 1788, ‘Australia’ did not exist. For many indigenous, it marked the beginning of their subjugation. For many white arrivals it marked the beginning of their forced exile. There is nothing to celebrate.

The first use of the term ‘Australia,’ an abbreviation of Terra Australis, did not occur at least until the early 19th century, the concept of a nation emerged further on still, and incrementally at that.

It is not unreasonable to trace the birth of the modern government to January 26, but to think this was the dawn of modern Australia is unquestioningly naïve.

The Australian value of a ‘fair go’ was first forged around Ballarat in 1854.

Australian political institutions like the secret ballot and the popular vote emerged in the middle of the 19th century.

The Harvester judgement of 1907 enshrined ideas of community and egalitarianism into common law, and World War 1 saw the international broadcast of Australian mate-ship as the ANZAC Digger.

The White Australia Policy was not properly dismantled until 1973.

The Mabo land rights decision was not handed down until 1992, and constitutional indigenous recognition remains unfulfilled.

Australia was not even federated as its own country until the twentieth century.

There is virtue in symbolism. But January 26 is no symbol. It represents a British colony of violence and division.

In contrast, the American reverence of the fourth of July, is likewise marked by the irony of its history (of liberation and slavery), but suffers considerably less twenty-first century malice. This is because it actually serves to stand as a reasonable idea. The values that it captures are timeless, and are capable of evolving alongside society. Whilst it is important to remember and to recognise the history that surrounds it, Independence Day can be positively celebrated in the modern world.

This is not the case for Australia Day. Outside of our dominion status, January 26 does not represent a single aspect of modern Australia, or its values. Reactionary claims of tradition almost exclusively stem from ignorance, indignation or insecurity.

Our national celebration should not be annually characterised by such violent disagreement built on such tenuous arguments. Australia Day is a terrific celebration, on an absurd date, and to attest otherwise is to deliberately not recognise the historical oxymoron of its title.

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