The view from Billinudgel

Change the date… but to when?
The time to celebrate Australia will be when it has recognised its First Nations people and become a republic

The Invasion Day rally in Melbourne, January 26, 2020. © James Ross / AAP Image

I have absolutely no problem celebrating on January 26… when I’m in India.

That is the anniversary of the day in 1950 when India was declared an independent republic, free of both its colonial masters and the British crown. A coincidence that makes the Australian festivities this past weekend all the more perplexing and demeaning.

For obvious reasons, First Nations people will not, cannot, ever be happy with a national holiday that celebrates invasion, dispossession and the long lie of terra nullius. But surely, First Nations or not, the rational among us must also feel uncomfortable rejoicing the raising of a foreign flag to inaugurate a penal colony that was designed purely as a dumping ground for the despised and unwanted of Mother England.

There is much to be proud of in our modern history, but January 26, 1788, is not part of it – on every level it is more of a shame and embarrassment than a matter for self-congratulation.

Yet in 2020 the cultural warriors of the reactionary right carry on as if the timing of the birthday of our nation, as they like to put it, is a matter of such earth-shaking importance that even debating it is a kind of treason.

This is arrant nonsense. But it should make sensible Australians – black, white and everything in between – consider not only the absurdity of the date but possible alternatives.

Apart from the considerations above, the hard fact is that the British connection to Australia has become more and more tenuous. We are already, triumphantly, a multicultural society – arguably, as Scott Morrison boasts, the most successful in the world.

Australians of British ancestry are an increasingly minor component of the great mix, and although we (like most democratic nations) owe much to British law, politics and culture, we most certainly do not see ourselves as the descendants of the Land of Hopeless Tories.

As we now sing with gusto, we are one, but we are many – I am, you are, we are Australian. So if we are to have a national day (and this is itself worth debating) it has to be unequivocally Australian. And then comes the problem. January 1, the anniversary of Federation in 1901, presents obvious logistical problems, and the other suggestions (like May 9, the opening of the first parliament) are no more than stopgaps. So let’s look to the future – and specifically to India.

When Australia eventually and inevitably becomes a republic, it will be the obvious time. But more thoughtful commentators are now pointing out that the republic will be incomplete without the recognition of and reconciliation with the original Australians. So this must come first: Makarrata, and a treaty, which would confirm that all of us are indeed one.

Once that is negotiated, we can take our place as a proud, united and independent people, willing to face our history, and, for all its flaws, missteps and prevarications, to take real control of it and celebrate it.

That will be the time for flags and fireworks. January 26 is, in the end, no more than an excuse for a self-indulgent and self-deluded piss-up.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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