We approach yet another Australia Day – the national day that most nations celebrate their identity and/or birth – with continued human confusion and muddle about both. Geographically we are certain about what Australia is. Humanly we are not.
Every Australia Day reminds us of the two big unresolved matters of Australian identification: finding the proper place for Indigenous people and removing the obsolete place of the British monarchy in the Constitution.
Neither unresolved issue will go away. And while unresolved, many if not most Australians will feel their national identity is unsatisfactory, wanting, in need of repair, or a source of outright anger.
We will be forever lessened as a people until these two matters are resolved in a way that all Australians can be proud of and self-assured and satisfied in their nationhood.
Importantly, the two issues should go hand-in-hand. It is unfortunate that we have seen some people and organisations arguing that one or other should come first. We must not be duped by British-Empire, divide-and-rule tactics.
The questions are inextricably linked. The declaration, upon the raising of the Union Jack on 26 January 1788, that the continent to 129 degrees longitude be a possession of King George III and his successors was also, by its nature, an act of dispossession of the Indigenous people.
For a long time, the disposed identified as members of their clan group – there were estimated to be about 500 of them in 1788 – while the new arrivals saw themselves as British. Robert Menzies who was Australian Prime Minister until retiring in 1966 called himself “British to the bootstraps”.
No Australian would identify as being “British to the bootstraps” now, let alone the Prime Minister. Whereas people of the Indigenous nations very much identify as Australian.
Nonetheless, the “British” elements, including the British monarch at its apex, remain in our Constitution while so many Indigenous people feel excluded, particularly from health, wealth and education.
Small wonder that the vast majority of Indigenous people and a growing number of people of non-Indigenous heritage see 26 January as “Invasion Day” – an invasion by the British whose monarch today remains at the constitutional apex and whose flag sits in the top right of the Australian flag.
When the concerns about whether the national day should be 26 January and whether the dispossession and continued disadvantage be acknowledged, former Prime Minister John Howard referred to it as “the black-armband” view of history and present Prime Minister Scott Morrison called it “indulgent self-loathing”.
But the continued marking of 26 January as the national day has a racist undertone not a nationalist one. It was not a nation-founding moment. It was the declaration of the land known as New South Wales as a colony – a place for white people from Britain to settle and place their convicts.
Marking 26 January can only be a “celebration” of the beginning of the white takeover or settlement of the continent, not the creation of the Australian nation, which was only to come 112 years later.
The land that is now Western Australia was not even included in the 26 January 1788 declaration. The lands that are now Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT were just part of the colony of NSW.
To “celebrate” 26 January as Australia Day is either ignorant or racist.
And as more people understand the history, the more they do not want to be part of any 26 January “celebration”. Many have barbecues only because it happens to be a public holiday.
Those in power who do not want to change the date do not understand what they are doing. They profess to be patriotic, loyal Australians, but by their inactions they are contributing to a growing body of people who would prefer no Australia Day to a flawed racist one. They are undermining national pride, not promoting it.
The growing body of people may not be taking to the streets, but they are voting with their feet. They are embarrassed by the ignorant displays of flag-waving jingoism on 26 January. They do not want to join the “celebrations” because that would mean acquiescence.
And they are embarrassed that successive governments who are supposed to represent them have not had the self-assurance and confidence to remedy these two blemishes on our national identity.
They are not indulgent self-loathers nor dismissive of enormous achievements by Australians. They just want the real history told. But they are disgusted at the speed with which the Coalition Government dismissed the legitimate requests in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And they are frustrated that those in power cannot find a way to convert that and the majority’s republican desires into our constitutional arrangements.
On the question of the republic, the Australian Republican Movement should pack its tent and go away. The publication by the ARM this month of the “Australian Choice” model can only do what its campaign for a republic in the 1990s did: set back the cause, rather than progress it.
In the 1990s the ARM built up a great head of steam, culminating in a national convention. It then failed to neutralise the grand-standing direct-election faction. And finally, the ARM fell for Howard’s divide-and-rule referendum, resulting in an unholy alliance of monarchists and direct-elect people defeating the majority desire for a republic.
And now they have come up with a ridiculous model of each state nominating one candidate for president and the Commonwealth nominating three candidates with all 11 standing in a preferential election. Not even a dog would eat that breakfast. And no-one with an ounce of self-respect would take part in it.
ARM, please go away. Just let a sensible government legislate to require that the Prime Minister get approval of their nominated person from a two-thirds majority of a joint sitting before the Prime Minister can request the Queen to appoint that person as Governor-General.
And when that is seen as a worthwhile check on the present untrammelled power of the Prime Minister to pick anyone they like as Governor-General, a referendum to remove the Queen from the process will be a mere formality.
Spare us camel-creating committees.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 25 January 2022.
Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor | ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia