Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why I don't support a national day for Australia

Lisbeth Latham

There is an important discussion currently occurring about the status of “Australia Day” and the date of January 26 – particularly whether the day should simply be abolished or moved to an alternative date. I fully support the idea of there not being a public holiday celebrating Invasion Day. I personally I think that the debate is one that should be decided within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, with the rest of society taking our queue from the resolution of this discussion by those communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have been making powerful arguments explaining the need to abandon January 26 as a celebration – with articles written by Celeste Liddle and Amy McQuire being examples. However as some white groups and publications, such as New Matilda having argued for changing the date of Australia-- I will add my views as to why I think having a national day in Australia is problematic.

Obviously holding a celebration of Australia on the date that the ongoing dispossession and genocide against the First Nations people began, is seriously problematic and the celebration of that date needs to stop. My concern is that simply changing the date does not and will not fundamentally change the character of Australia Day. The idea of a national day - celebrating the nation- while fraught in any context is particularly so in the context of an imperialist colonial settler state such as Australia. To say moving the date will somehow change the character of the day, ignores that invasion and dispossession did not start and stop on January 26, 1788.

Some advocates of the date being shifted have noted that the day has not always been held on January 26. There have been other “Australia Days” held on May 24 and July 30 while other days have also been raised such as April 29. May 24, marked an attempt by Irish Catholics to subvert Empire Day held on Queen Victoria’s Birthday, while July 30 was used during the First World War to collect money for the war effort. April 29, was suggested by some members of the Australian Natives Association (a White Nativist organisation that had been central to the Federation project and subsequently to the institutionalisation of Australia Day) as an alternative day to January 26 (describing the date as a bad start). April 29 was the anniversary of Cook’s landing at Ka-may (Botany Bay).

Changing the date also doesn’t address the reality that Australia already has other public holidays to celebrate its imperialist and colonialist character such as ANZAC Day, which is a date that has been proposed as an alternative date for Australia Day, and the various state-based celebrations of invasion like Foundation day in WA. While ANZAC Day has changed in character over time, in my lifetime it has become even more of a celebration of war and imperialism, but it has always been an imperialist project – it was created as way to combat the widespread anti-war sentiment that existed in Australia after the First World War, particularly amongst returning service personnel.

All of these alternative dates were still celebrations of “White Australia” - and this goes to the question of what does "Australia Day" celebrate? I would argue it celebrates a project which fundamentally racist to its core and premised on the dispossession of the First Nations Peoples and a generally narrow definition of who or what is Australian (a definition which has expanded over the years but remains a basis for exclusion). Irrespective of the date you pick an Australian National Day will be a day that lends itself to jingoism, racism and attempts to erase the dispossession and genocide experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples whilst simultaneously marginalising these communities.

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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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