The timing of Australia Day – January 26, the anniversary of when Governor Arthur Phillip arrived in Sydney Cove and the British Empire expanded its reach across the continent – is controversial. “Expanded its reach” is a polite way to say “conquered the hell out of the place” – and that’s exactly what the day marks. It was the day the continents indigenous inhabitants encountered an Outside Context Problem;
The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.
To be honest, what the British did here was no worse than what had been done across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, for thousands of years; if you don’t believe me, go look up the Mongol Conquest of Baghdad.
That’s not to say it was OK; though I loathe historical presentism, by the standards of today what was done was reprehensible, and people are still hurting from it. But even by the standards of the time, the British weren’t very nice – and they knew it;
Aborigines were initially treated with compassion, but soon after Governor Phillip’s departure the massacres began. First at Risdon Cove in Van Diemen’s Land, where in 1804 a large party of Aborigines hunting game was murdered by grapeshot fired on the orders of Dr Jacob Montgarret, Launceston’s magistrate. He recovered many of the bodies, melted them down and crammed the bones into casks which he sent, for anthropological amusement, to his colleagues in Sydney. Other massacres followed, and in Tasmania – let’s make no melted-down bones about it – the British committed genocide. Although the term would not be coined for another century, the British knew exactly what they had done: they had, admitted a parliamentary committee in 1839, left ‘an indelible stain’.
— Robertson, Geoffrey (2011-07-01). The Statute of Liberty (Kindle Locations 844-850). Random House Australia. Kindle Edition.
My personal view is that January 26 isn’t an anniversary to be celebrated as the national day of the country – it can be a day to consider the journey of the nation since that fateful day in 1788, both the good and the bad, but I can think of better dates for our national day. Dates that don’t rub it in the faces of the indigenous inhabitants of the country, and actually mark something significant – milestones on our march to independence as a nation.
First, 9 October, the date of the passage of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act – the Statute being an act of the British Parliament that made us, and the other dominions, de jure independent nations. The British Parliament passed it on 11 December 1931, but seeing as it took us 11 years to pass the enabling legislation here, 11 December would be a poor choice.
Second, 4 December, the date of the Australian passage of the Australia Act, which severed the last constitutional links with the United Kingdom.
Third, 3 March, the date that Act came into effect.
All three are good candidates for our de facto independence as a nation, and all three come without a very bitter pill for our indigenous peoples to swallow.
I’ve listed them in order of my personal preference. My reason for ranking 9 October as first is that it marks the day the Australian Government finally gathered the intestinal fortitude to do what the British had been wanting us to do for over a decade, and become legislatively independent. I rank 4 December second as it is the day we crossed the Rubicon in severing ourselves from the UK. 3 march comes a distant third, only because you’ll have to fight the gays for that day every time it coincides with the first Saturday in March.
Picking any one of those days will be fine, frankly. And it beats waiting for the Republic.
Addendum, 24 January 2018: Eddie McGuire has suggested on Triple M that May 27, the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum , would do nicely, being the day when “white Australia and black Australia finally became ‘Australia'” (https://www.triplem.com.au/shows/the-hot-breakfast/content/eddie-mcguire-proposes-a-new-date-for-australia-day) – although the effect of the referendum isn’t as great as is often claimed, the symbolism is significant, and I see nothing wrong with that at all.