Map of Australia

250 years after James Cook, how should we view Australia Day?

24 January 2020
National identity in the 21st century
One of Australia’s leading historians, Professor Mark McKenna reflects on our divergent attitudes to Australia Day.

Australia Day will be different this year because the human and environmental tragedy of the bushfires, which are still ongoing, will be centre stage. Our response to these extraordinary circumstances is not only a test of our resources and resilience but also of our national leadership. The changes that we introduce in the wake of the fires will say much about the type of nation we want to become in the future.  

This month saw the publication of an ‘Open Letter’ from Australian historians on the Drought and Bushfire Crisis, which, in light of our history, highlighted the exceptional nature of the predicament currently facing the nation.

Calling for urgent reduction of Australia’s emissions, the authors pointed to past ‘instances of national mobilisation for the collective good in both war and peace’ – Federation, post-war reconstruction and the economic and social reforms of the 1970s and 1980s.

On Australia Day, the historians’ call for national mobilisation on climate change reminds us what is missing in so much of our political discourse: the belief that national renewal is still possible; the very idea that Australia can reset the course that it is currently on, not only on climate change, where we witness such crippling inertia, but also on issues that we have been grappling with for the last half century, many of which go the heart of our national identity in the 21st century.

Since the 1970s, Australia has been struggling with the challenge of founding what Noel Pearson has eloquently called a “more complete Commonwealth.” No longer able to rely on the old narratives that sustained what was seen as an isolated, essentially British society in the South Pacific, and confronting a rising tide of Indigenous protest and revisionist history which exposed the lie of peaceful British settlement, the country has witnessed an ongoing crisis of faith in its legitimacy. At the heart of this crisis is a dispute about the way the country was conquered and settled – the long history of Australia’s frontier.

Fifty years on, we are still trying to understand the meaning of this history and its significance for the nation’s future. The question of whether Australia Day should be moved is merely the latest example. But it is also a sign of a slowly dawning realisation.

The way we acknowledge our history has the power to make or unmake the nation.

Many of the disputes surrounding Australia Day – a day which has only been celebrated as a national holiday since 1994 – are only the surface ripples of a far more prolonged and all-encompassing national project, one that we have yet to see “whole” rather than through its constituent parts – reconciliation and constitutional recognition; the republic; and the recent resurgence of Anzac Day as Australia’s national day.

All of these designs for national renewal are intimately connected to the challenge of truth-telling and the acknowledgment of history, yet so far we have failed to see the connections between them. We contemplate recognition. We remain divided over the meaning of Australia Day. We gather around the hearth of Anzac. We discuss the republic intermittently. But these debates and their histories circulate in parallel universes.

Within the next decade Australia has the opportunity to achieve a meaningful constitutional settlement with Indigenous Australians, to become a republic, and perhaps in the process, to redefine the way we see ourselves and the way the country is seen by others. If these changes are to have any realistic prospect of success, we need to articulate a more cohesive and unified vision, one that understands the crucial importance of truth-telling.

As Marcia Langton wrote in 2003, because of the work of historians and Aboriginal people who have shared their oral histories over the last decades, we now have “a much more robust idea of the past from which Australians need not shrink in denial, but which, if wrestled with honestly, lays the foundations for a new story of the nation.”

This “new story” is one that we have barely begun to glimpse. Ever so tentatively, we are coming to accept the relationship between the acknowledgment of history and the re-founding of the nation on more honest, just and legitimate grounds. But there is a long road to travel. When we begin public meetings and official events with an acknowledgment of country, we refer to Aboriginal people as “traditional owners of the land,” a phrase that lacks a completing clause: “which was taken from them without their consent, treaty or compensation.” Even our acknowledgments contain silences.

There seems little point in changing the date of Australia Day until we have a viable alternative. Rather than choosing another day, the day needs to choose itself. We need to first prepare the ground for a truly unifying national day by working through the challenges of constitutional recognition, truth-telling and genuine legislative reform. This could happen in a way that changes the nature of commemoration on 26 January, making it more inclusive, or lead to another date entirely. In any case, it is difficult to imagine that Australia Day can survive in its current form. 

How can we continue to pretend that 26 January represents a genuinely inclusive and unifying national day when it is patently a day of such painful memories for Indigenous Australians?

As it stands, the day is already untethered from the events that took place on 26 January 1788, when Governor Arthur Phillip and his officers, who had already been in Sydney Harbour since 21 January, came ashore to plant the British flag and toast the King. By placing Australia Day on the 26th we have not chosen the date of the First Fleet’s arrival on the east coast of Australia – the first ships arrived at Botany Bay on 18 January – nor the date of the reading of the royal commission, 7 February 1788, when Phillip addressed the marines and convicts.

Instead, in a direct affront to Indigenous Australians, whose “ancient sovereignty” we have still not acknowledged, we have chosen the day of flag-planting and the assertion of sovereignty by the British Crown, which also happens to be the anniversary of the massacre at Waterloo Creek in 1838, when up to fifty Kamilaroi people were killed in the New England District of New South Wales. Little of this is mentioned when we celebrate Australia Day. Instead, the focus is on citizenship ceremonies, which Councils are now required by Commonwealth legislation to hold on January 26, or have their rights to hold them taken away.

We desperately need a more enlightened approach – a way of facing up to the true history of the country’s foundation without condemning European Australia as irredeemable or dismissing the violence of dispossession. As Waleed Aly perceptively remarked in April 2016, “as a nation, we lack a national mythology that can cope with our shortcomings. That transforms our historical scars into fatal psychological wounds, leaving us with a bizarre need to insist everything was – and is – as good as it gets.”  

All too often, Australia Day can be an occasion for unreflective celebration; a day of pretending that except for a handful of unspeakable ‘blemishes’, Australia is ‘the greatest country on earth’. But as the bushfire crisis we’re living through reminds us, we can’t go on as before. Perhaps we could use the occasion of Australia Day to ask ourselves some difficult questions.

In seeking to prevent extreme bushfire events as we’ve seen this summer, how can we learn from the Indigenous land management practices that cared for this continent for millennia? How can we lead the world on climate change policy? How can we find the political will to change the direction of the nation and reimagine the Commonwealth? How can we reclaim our constitution as a living document, one that genuinely reflects the democratic principles we share and enshrines a permanent voice for Indigenous Australians?

If our political leaders looked hard enough at our history, they might at least find the courage to begin the conversation.  

Mark McKenna is a Professor in the Department of History in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry.

You can read more in his Quarterly Essay ‘Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future’ (QE69 - March 2018).

Image by Joey Csunyo on Unsplash

Professor Mark McKenna

Profile shot of Professor Mark McKenna

Related news

See more