Australia Day debate misses  key points

An opinion poll this week found the majority of people aren’t fussed about changing the date of Australia Day. It also found a large proportion of respondents did not know the day was celebrated on that particular date.

Arguments for changing the date centre on Indigenous sensitivities over a date that, for them, lives in infamy. It was the start of a cruel occupation, the effects of which are still painfully felt. 

Perhaps there are other reasons for changing the date as well. The Aborigines did not want us here and most of the convicts on the First Fleet didn’t want to be here either. White settlement was painful for all concerned.

We should probably ask ourselves whether the establishment of a penal colony is really the best occasion we have in our history to celebrate our nationhood. Back in 1788, the place wasn’t known as Australia but simply Botany Bay. It then became New South Wales. Australia as a concept came much later.

Despite the feverish claim Australia Day is a tradition that needs to be preserved at all costs, it isn’t. It only became a nationally observed holiday in 1994. Prior to that it had been observed on different dates, in different states.

Philosophical arguments aside, there’s a practical reason for changing the date. As we’ve seen all too starkly, cramming all these holidays into one month places incredible strain on our roads and infrastructure. If we moved it to, say, March or September, might we not ease some of that pressure?

All this is moot, however, because our politicians (apart from the Greens, that is) are adamant the day is set in stone, even though we haven’t heard them enunciate exactly why.

It is important we celebrate our nationhood because we really have come a long way since setting up as a prison camp.

We became a federation on January 1, 1901 but that’s already a public holiday. And, besides, all that happened then was that we federated the colonies into a dominion of Great Britain. In 1931, Britain passed the Statute of Westminster, which would have made us a nation in our right but we didn’t ratify that until 1942. That’s the year, many argue, we actually became a fully fledged nation. 

Maybe the date of that ratification ought to be Australia Day. It might be more appropriate than the founding of a penal colony.