Madonna King: Australia Day should not divide the nation. The day must change

A protester waves an Australian Aboriginal flag during the annual "Invasion Day" protest march through the streets of Sydney on Australia Day.

A protester waves an Australian Aboriginal flag during the annual "Invasion Day" protest march through the streets of Sydney on Australia Day. Photo: Getty

Drive through any of our big cities on Friday, and the day was headlined by the division that now marks Australia Day.

Oversized Australian flags hugged balconies while lamb cooked on barbies and friends gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the First Fleet’s 1788 arrival at Port Jackson in New South Wales.

And a stone’s throw away, our city centres teemed with protestors marking the same day as Invasion Day.

Inside families and friendships and neighbourhood groups, some celebrated, and others mourned; a dark dividing line drawn on how we see Australia Day in 2024.

How have our leaders let it come to this, where half the population are celebrating with champagne on a public holiday Friday, and others are mourning, chanting their heartbreak in the pouring rain?

That’s not Australia, surely? But that’s what was on show this year.

How do we move on from the rancour and resentment over a failed referendum vote, that continues to colour how we see both our past and our future?

The divider is bigger than a date on a page – but surely that might be a simple place to start: A new date, signalling a new beginning and promising a celebration that envelops us all.

It’s a big ask, at a time when we seem to almost cherish division: Them and us, rich and poor, young and old, country and city. Right and left.

Leadership here is unlikely to come from Canberra, where our politicians struggle to agree on the time of day or the day of the week – let alone where the nation is headed, and how to unify its people.

The pity is that what we saw on Friday is not the Australia we should be celebrating, or leaving to our children.

That Australia is epitomised by a 57-year-old father, who has an incurable brain tumour – and who, along with his colleague Professor Georgina Long – has given a future to melanoma sufferers.

Professor Richard Scolyer told us, on winning Australian of the Year, that he didn’t want to die, but that his future was now “measured in months rather than decades’’.

He has offered himself as a medical guinea pig, of sorts, so that other cancer sufferers might have a bigger chance. “So I say to all Australians, no matter what life throws at you – seek out opportunities to contribute, to participate, and to action change.’’

That’s the Australia we should be talking about: An Australia where we fight to be better, together.

It’s on show in Townsville this weekend, where volunteers and friends are hugging those who have no power, and not much else.

And in our volunteer lifesavers, patrolling beaches, desperate to end tragedies like this week’s mass drowning at Philip Island in Victoria.

Daily, we see it in our school tuckshops and in universities, in our hospitals and on our farms, where the day starts early and ends late.

And we saw it yesterday also in the citizenship ceremonies that weren’t cancelled – and where 15,000 people pledged their allegiance to a country full of good fortune and good people.

That’s the Australia we should be seeing and celebrating.

With Richard Scolyer in mind, let’s use 2024 to do what he asked: To contribute, to participate, and to action change.

And where better to start than on the Indigenous disadvantage none of us can deny, and that we should all be rallying to change.

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