Friday, 29 January 2021

Australia Day

Image courtesy CEFA.

Last Tuesday was a public holiday.

It’s a public holiday because two hundred and thirty three years ago, a convict settlement was established at Botany Bay by the British.

When you think about it, being granted a public holiday seems a strange way of remembering the opening of a penal settlement. If it was, say, a school, or a hospital, perhaps that would be grounds for celebration. But a jail? 

We should commemorate a national day. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on what being Australian actually means, and to understand our history, and what makes this country the best place to live if you value a great quality of life.

But if you understand our history, it's difficult to rationalise the choice of January 26th as our national day.

Back in 1788, the first fleet arrived over the period of 18-20 January 1788. Between the 25th and the 26 January 1788 they moved from Botany bay to present-day Sydney. It was very much an arrival in dribs and drabs.

The significance of the 26th January lies in the fact that this was the day when Phillip, after a reconnaissance on 21st January to find a more favourable spot than Botany Bay for a settlement, planted the Union Jack at Port Jackson.

If you had asked the redoutable Arthur Phillip what exactly he was doing, I doubt very much that "establishing a nation" would have entered the conversation. He was carrying out his orders, dutifully setting up a penal settlement, because the loss of the American colonies had shut off earlier options for detaining prisoners.

A new location had to be found, and Port Jackson was suitable. Let's not kid ourselves. This was nothing to do with nation-building. It was an exercise in developing a jail.

The first time the term "Australia" was used on anything official was by Matthew Flinders in a chart he compiled in 1804 whilst imprisoned by the French in Mauritius. It wasn't until 1824 (36 years after the arrival of the first fleet), that the British Admiralty finally accepted that the continent should be known officially as Australia.

So calling 26th January "Australia Day" because of the significance of the date is an ahistorical misunderstanding.

So if not 26th January - when?

That really is quite straightforward. 

That date of Federation (1st January) is an obvious choice.

The move toward Federation was a long time in the development, marking, as it did, the growth of a sense of national identity felt by native born Australians.

The Tenterfield Oration, given by Sir Henry Parkes on 24 October 1889, is generally recognized as the beginning of the Federation process.

The argument against 1st January as unsuitable because it is already a public holiday is a distraction. If having a day off is so important, the holiday could be taken at some other time. Beyond that, almost everybody is already celebrating the New Year on that day, so adding a national commemoration won't spoil anything.

As for the "Invasion day" controversy - perhaps moving the emphasis from dispossession (as signified by remembering the planting of the Union Jack), to celebrating the creation of a new federated nation might take some of the heat out of that.

The flag planted on 26th January 1788 was not, after all, the Australian flag.

It is the flag of another nation entirely, a nation that had rejected and imprisoned the majority of those who witnessed its unfurling back then.

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Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...