Australia Day controversy: What date could it be instead?

Debate has grown about the date of Australia's national day.

Debate has grown about the date of Australia's national day. Photo: AAP

Australia Day is heading our way.

Not only will we celebrate, many will commiserate and call for the day to be changed.

More and more local councils have begun to reject Australia Day ceremonies.

Are they right to call for change?

Some say there are two sides to the Australia Day debate, one for January 26 and one against January 26.

Some simplify the debate as the pro-January 26 side being non-Indigenous, and the anti-January 26 side being Indigenous.

The debate is not that simple.

It may be complex, but there is a solution.

Most Australians accept that to many Indigenous Australians, January 26 is not a day for celebration.

But neither should it be for free-minded British-descended democrats either.

This is not mere political correctness.

Let’s look at some facts and ask, should British descendants even be celebrating what happened on January 26, regardless of the Indigenous issues?

Here are some facts.

Firstly, Captain James Cook did not discover Australia.

Not only was he not the first person here, as we now recognise Indigenous Australians were, Cook was not even the first European. That honour goes to the Dutch.

Secondly, January 26, 1788, did not see the foundation of modern Australia.

It didn’t even see the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia.

The First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay between January 18 and January 20 and moved to Port Jackson on January 26 because there was not enough fresh water in Botany Bay.

In a sense then, January 26 is not the first landing, it is the anniversary of the first fix to the first stuff-up. Hardly an auspicious start.

Thirdly, on January 26, 300 soldiers who probably did not want to be here, and 700 convicts who definitely did not want to be here, took their first look at Port Jackson.

They didn’t like it and wanted to go home.

Think about it this way: January 26 marked the foundation, not of a thriving modern and free country, but of a prison.

Is that really the event a free-minded British descendant wants to celebrate as the foundation of our modern, democratic and free nation?

As a nation we have invented a story of what happened on January 26, 1788.

We invented a story of national foundation and modern democratic liveability. This fiction is far from the truth.

Putting issues of dispossession to one side for just a moment, January 26 represents nothing of what we are today.

For the Indigenous among us, January 26 is legitimately seen as the day they lost sole possession of this land.

That we must all surely understand is not cause for celebration for the Indigenous communities.

But anti-January 26 advocates can never answer the obvious question: “If not January 26, then when?”

Choosing a new Australia Day

What is a credible alternative to January 26? Without an alternative, the day will never move.

Some say January 1, as it marks the official commencement of the Constitution.

But let’s be pragmatic here. Dawn on January 1, most Australians are either just going to bed, or wanting to stay in bed, and they won’t want to rush out to raise the flag. A hair of the dog at lunchtime is more likely.

Anzac Day is a commemoration and not a celebration. The two things are different and should be kept that way.

The US celebrates independence the day it declared independence (July 4, 1776) not the day that it actually received independence (September 3, 1783). We have no equivalent.

The New Zealanders celebrate February 6 as the day the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. Unless and until Australia gets around to having a similar treaty, then New Zealand history gives us no guide.

Canada celebrates its national day on the day the constitution passed the British Imperial Parliament in Westminster. The equivalent for Australia is July 9, 1900.

If we wanted to make the whole thing more Australian, we could celebrate the day the Constitution passed the Australian Parliament.

That was not the ceremonial opening on January 1, 1901, but rather the first sitting on May 9, 1901.

But there is one date we can claim as all ours.

February 13 is the date where our national parliament duly acknowledged the past and laid claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

The Parliament apologised for past wrongs, including dispossession, recognised we are all here now and committed to build together for the future.

Perhaps February 13 is a better foundation for a modern, democratic and free nation than the day a prison was founded on a remote shore by 1000 people who did not want to be here.

But like the Republic referendum lost because as a nation we could not agree on a model, we will never agree to shift Australia Day until we agree on which day to shift it to.

So let’s do an opinion poll, vote in a plebiscite, binding or non-binding.

Let’s choose between February 13, May 9 and July 9.

Then let’s put the winner of that poll up against January 26 and then decide what we, as all Australians, would like to celebrate.

Andrew MacLeod is a former CEO of the Committee for Melbourne and is now a non executive director and chairman. His father was a patrol officer in the 1950s and authored Patrol in the Dreamtime. He can be followed on Twitter @AndrewMMacleod

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