Alan Kohler: Happy Australia Day. Let’s make it a two-day festival

Noel Pearson makes the case for starting the observance of Australia Day on January 25 and continuing it into January 26, Alan Kohler writes.

Noel Pearson makes the case for starting the observance of Australia Day on January 25 and continuing it into January 26, Alan Kohler writes. Photo: TND

January 26 is a ridiculous national day, but it’s the one we’ve got, and we’re stuck with it.

It’s just the day in 1788 when the ships carrying convicts from England decamped from Botany Bay to Port Jackson because it was a better spot.

They had landed a week earlier, but the place was nothing like the nirvana James Cook and his botanist Joseph Banks had described. The anchorage was too shallow, there was little fresh water and the soil was poor, so Arthur Phillip decided to check out an inlet 10 miles up the coast.

Cook had sailed into Botany Bay by chance, but then went straight past Port Jackson as he headed north to claim the whole island continent for Britain in the Torres Strait on August 22, 1770, calling it New South Wales for some weird reason. Apparently, he thought it looked a bit like South Wales.

James Cook

Captain James Cook.

He was in the neighbourhood to observe the transit of Venus from the Pacific Ocean, for which he was paid a bonus of 100 guineas, and first touched Australian soil at Point Hicks in what became Victoria on April 19, 1770, after spending time in New Zealand.

So on January 26, 1788, the jailers sent to establish a prison in the vast land that Cook had bumped into 18 years earlier, moved up the coast a bit, and here we are 235 years later marking that as the day of national foundation.

Federation  confusion

Australia and Australians didn’t exist until January 1, 1901, when the Commonwealth of Australia was created by a constitution, after the six separate colonies agreed in 1891 to establish a federation.

It didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to make Australia Day on January 1, presumably because you can’t have a national day on New Year’s Day. It would be like having your birthday on Christmas Day – too confusing.

It might have been April 19 when James Cook first landed on what became Australia, or perhaps August 22, when he claimed the land for England in 1770. Or even January 18, when Arthur Phillip’s boat, Supply, actually arrived at Botany Bay.

But it’s January 26, when Phillip disembarked at Sydney Cove in Port Jackson and declared: “What a ripper spot! This’ll be great for a prison.”

But the main reason it’s a problematic date for Australia Day is that we now know, and accept, that the place was already inhabited, and that what actually happened on that day in 1788, or actually a week earlier, was the start of an invasion of another nation, or rather collection of nations.

Arthur Phillip knew that as well, of course, because he could see the people he was dispossessing, but he didn’t care.

History of dispossession

john batman william cooper

John Batman was a founder of Melbourne but his deal to rent the land was over-ridden by Governor Bourke.

We know that the son of a convict and all-round chancer, John Batman, recognised the original inhabitants because he murdered many in Tasmania, and in 1835 he agreed to rent Melbourne from the Kulin nation for 40 blankets, 30 axes, 100 knives, 50 scissors, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour and six shirts. But Governor Bourke in Sydney declared the deal invalid and turned the place on Yarra River into Crown land, dispossessing Batman and the Kulin tribes.

After that there was no more thought of paying for land, and no one much cared about those who had been here first – until Lionel Murphy and Gough Whitlam passed the Racial Discrimination Act in their government’s final days, which led eventually to the High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992 which in turn finally extinguished the idea the continent was terra nullius, or uninhabited.

Thirty years later, we now note which Aboriginal lands we’re standing on when we start speeches and events, and often include a Welcome to Country from an elder at many ceremonies. And we’re about to vote on whether to give the First Australians a Voice to Parliament, and therefore constitutional recognition.

But we still patriotically celebrate the day Arthur Phillip took his boatloads of convicts from Botany Bay to Sydney Cove and launched the long and brutal theft of the land from the original nations who had owned it before.

A fine idea

In the second last essay in his book, Mission, Noel Pearson makes the case for starting the observance of Australia Day on January 25 and continuing it into January 26.

This is a very fine idea.

Noel Pearson

Noel Pearson’s idea for a two-day observance of Australia Day has merit.

On January 25, as he puts it, “the entire east coast was held under the ancient sovereignty of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes, the First Nations of Australia”.

“We can’t run away from 26 January, the same as we can’t run away from 25 January.

“Linking 25 January and 26 January would be a noble compromise between the old and the new. It would bring together honour and empathy, remembrance and celebration.”

It’s a clever idea, because Pearson knows that shifting Australia Day to some other date entirely isn’t going to happen – there isn’t one that makes enough sense, and he doesn’t want that anyway.

Pearson doesn’t deal with the question of which of the two days should be the public holiday with barbecues, but that could be a matter of choice. Those who feel uncomfortable about celebrating “invasion day” could instead toast Australia’s first people on the day before.

A matter of choice

Many companies are already making the Australia Day holiday a matter of choice; the latest is Telstra, whose CEO Vicki Brady wrote in a LinkedIn post this week that: “I’ll be choosing to work and will take a different day of leave with my family, because that feels right for me.”

She continued: “For many First Nations peoples, Australia Day is a painful reminder of discrimination and exclusion. It marks a turning point that saw lives lost, culture devalued, and connections between people and places destroyed.”

Maybe with companies like Telstra eschewing January 26, a two-day celebration is something even the Coalition and the right-wing media could support, although with their use of the Voice referendum as a tool for political differentiation and whipping up a culture wars fight, that doesn’t look too likely.

January 26 is the day when ancient Australia became modern Australia, but by including January 25 we would be recognising the ancient at the same time as our own history as new arrivals, and those who are still arriving.

So Happy Australia Day, but let’s make it even bigger: A two-day party.

Alan Kohler writes for The New Daily twice a week. He is also founder of Eureka Report  and finance presenter of ABC news

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