Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s proposal to continue celebrating Australia Day on January 26, but introduce a separate “special day” for Indigenous Australians may have been well-intentioned – but it misses the point.
January 26 will always be a difficult day for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It cannot serve as a unifying date.
January 26 is the date the penal colony of NSW was established, setting in motion events that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still recovering from today.
The ongoing impact can be seen in disturbing rates of indigenous incarceration, the growing over-representation of indigenous children in out-of-home care and the huge disparities that exist between health outcomes for indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Byron Shire Council’s decision to shift Australia Day celebrations – and similar moves in recent years by local councils in Melbourne, the City of Fremantle and Flinders Island Council – recognise that January 26 is not a date that all Australians can celebrate.
Not only does January 26 mark the day that the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples began, it positions European invasion as the primary source of Australian identity and pride.
In doing so, it ignores more than 60,000 years of pre-colonial history.
While some have argued that a push to change the date is divisive – or an act of “self-loathing”, as the Prime Minister claims – it’s actually a movement that seeks to bring us closer together. That’s what reconciliation is – recognising and healing the past so that we can build a better and more unified tomorrow.
To recognise and heal, some changes have to be made. And this change is pretty straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that we’ve done it several times in the past.
In the early-1900s, for example, Australia Day was held on July 30. And it wasn’t until 1994 that January 26 became a public holiday.
Some people will argue that we have bigger issues to focus on. But I believe our nation is capable of closing the gap, for example, at the same time as we modify our symbols of nationhood to better reflect the fullness of our national identity.
Calls to shift the date of Australia Day will continue to gain momentum. Changing the date is a move that needs to happen if we’re to have a national day that is inclusive of all Australians.