Playing Politics: Why Labor Won’t Move Australia Day

Welcome to Dig Deeper, a content series allowing you to dive as deep as you like into topics that are underserved in the current media landscape but need and deserve more coverage and attention.

Its purpose is to shed light on important community-based issues facing minority groups. To start with, we’re having honest and open conversations around January 26, the national mood and changing the date.

The Labor government campaigned upon and won the election last year off the back of a progressive agenda. Their promised campaign to put an Indigenous Voice to Parliament to a referendum is slowly materialising and they’ve passed climate legislation that would drastically cut Australia’s emissions below where the last government would have had them.

Yet there is a sense, in progressive politics, that you can only move so quickly on certain issues. Without bringing the electorate with you, your policies risk isolating and alienating voters. Changing the date of Australia Day, from January 26th to literally any other date in the calendar that doesn’t signify the start of genocide, appears to be one of those issues.

This January 26th will be the first ‘Australia Day’ that Labor has federally presided over in nearly a decade and, while we no longer have a Prime Minister complaining it wasn’t “a particularly flash day” for the people arriving by boat, there still feels like a lot of work to be done.

The Labor government currently has no plans to begin considering a date change, arguing instead that they are focussed on getting their constitutional reforms through Parliament. Indeed, it will be a tough battle to win and, arguably, will offer more significant changes to the lives of Indigenous people than the potential sticking plaster of having a BBQ on another day.

In addition, the backlash for such a change would be genuinely immense from some of the ‘quiet Australian’ corners, threatening to potentially turf Labor out of government on a wave of culture war rhetoric we could all, frankly, do without.

For Indigenous people, having to endure yet another annual reminder of the brutality and genocide their ancestors faced and the legacy of that continuing oppression they still do is unwelcome. Many will be joining the growing ranks of the thousands marching in capital cities to protest the date, others will simply be trying to get some peace and quiet with family and friends.

Most countries have a national holiday to celebrate their nation. It’s just that most of them choose not to do so on the date they were invaded by a foreign Empire looking for a remote island to dump their unwanted — a policy Australia picked up and ran with.

January 26, 2023 will inspire another round of contention and argument. Whether this argument will continue forever, or until the date is changed, remains to be seen. It is however highly unlikely that the current Labor government will be the one to do it.

What Has Labor Said?

When contacted, the Prime Minister’s press office stated that “the Government has no plans to change Australia Day.”

Instead, Anthony Albanese’s priority is “to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution with the Voice to Parliament”.

Its a message that the Labor leader has been pretty consistent on, saying in 2020 that we need to “seek ways to unite Australia rather than engage in culture wars”.

“I think that we do need to recognise that Australia Day for Indigenous Australians is a difficult day. Yes, modern Australia, is connected with the arrival of migrants, but that had an impact, a terrible impact, a devastating impact, indeed, on First Australians,” he told 2GB Radio.

“It’s an opportunity to educate people about dispossession and the consequences of it. And it’s given a focus on that day.”

In September last year, Albanese appeared on Sunrise where he repeated much the same line: “We have no plans to change Australia Day. My priority, to bring the nation together, and to bring an uplifting moment, is to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands people in our Constitution,” he said.

The question was asked in response to Melbourne City Council who were petitioning the Federal Government to change the date of Australia Day. Albanese, as Labor leader, seems to be of the same opinion he was in 2018 when he noted that changing the meaning, rather than the date, would be more useful.

Still, his decision to reverse a Morrison-era policy that mandated citizenship ceremonies to be held on January 26th, allowing them to be held three days on either side, had some screaming that he was “cancelling Australia Day by stealth.” One Queensland LNP MP has gotten so worked up that he’s drafted legislation that would see Australia Day permanently held on January 26th.

It’s mainly the wont of ‘greenie, inner-city, leftie, woke’ councils to refuse to celebrate Australia Day — it was three out of 31 who voted to do so in Melbourne, alongside Sydney’s Inner-West Council who scrapped their celebrations in 2019. This is hardly the wave of change that a Federal Government would ride to such a monumental act.

Still, polling does suggest we’re nearing a national tipping point, with support for changing the date doubling over the past two decades. Last year’s polls revealed that roughly 60% of people believe the date should be changed or that an additional Indigenous holiday should be granted. Conversely, another poll found that support for Australia Day had increased by 6%, standing at around 65%.

Why Can’t Australia Day Be Moved?

As the above shows, it’s not a vote winner. Even if it were, it’s actually not the job of the Federal Government to make that decision.

Australia Day, as a concept, has only been celebrated nationally since 1996. Prior to that, a whole range of dates was celebrated by people in various states and territories, with January 26th holding special significance for NSW only. While the federal government mandated unity on the date in the 90s, state and territory governments have the power to shift it. Any one of them could decide unilaterally to stop recognising the date if they wanted to.

As above, some local government bodies have already done so but they’re hardly in the majority. The problem with shifting the date is that there aren’t really any great alternatives that fit the criteria. Additional polling suggests that more and more Aussies treat the day as a nice day off, ignoring the symbolism of the date, rather than attending any overtly ‘Australian’ flag-waving events.

If you want a nice day off when the weather is good, you’re going to have to pick a date between October and March, although, with the breakdown of the climate accelerating each year, even that is becoming a difficult gamble.

Dates on offer within that range would be January 1st, the day Australia was officially federated, January 18th, the date the first fleet actually arrived in Australia, February 7th, the day a colony was first proclaimed in NSW, or March 3rd, the day Australia became legally independent from the UK in 1986. None of these really have the historical heft that January 26th does, nor do they circumvent the troubling colonial overtones of the current date.

Really, most significant dates in Australian history have this problem which is unavoidable given Australian history is largely one of oppression.

Is the Date Even Worth Changing?

While the Change the Date campaign has been gaining steam over the past decade or so, there is a sense that more nuance is creeping into the annual slagging match.

Changing the date on which you celebrate a country founded on genocide and that still has some of the worst health and social markers for its Indigenous people in the world isn’t going to make much material difference to those people.

Instead of changing the date, some people have advocated for changing the country instead, to one where justice for First Nations peoples is put at the heart of policy-making. In a sense, this is what the Voice to Parliament is hoping to go some way to achieving, but there is much more to be done beyond that.

Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe told The Latch that “celebrating January 26 is like dancing on our graves”.

“It’s the start of genocide, police brutality, the stolen generation and dispossession. Once we have a shared understanding of our history, we can map out where we’re going. Together”.

Her party’s policy is to have Australia Day recognised as a day of mourning and argues that until Australia has a Treaty with its First Nations people, following a national truth and justice commission, there can be nothing to celebrate as the wounds of history are still open.

“Every day is Invasion Day, until we have a Treaty in this Country,” she said.

“When this country was invaded, we never sat down to negotiate how we could live together peacefully as equals. I’d like to see the day we sign a Treaty celebrated as a national holiday”.

Her viewpoint echoes that of Indigenous activists who have long said that changing the date changes nothing, as settler colonialism is a structure, not an event. Nothing short of a total overhaul of the capitalist system of exploitation would come close to addressing the historical wrongs that have been perpetuated by this country, they argue.

Outside of such a tall order, others have noted that the date itself, or what the date symbolises, is already changing. It’s no longer possible, in many parts of this country, to attend a flag-waving BBQ piss-up without feeling at least a twinge of guilt or discomfort. Gone are the days of mindless celebration and, instead, all state and territory governments hosting ‘Australia Day’ events are further incorporating Indigenous peoples and culture into their offerings. Hell, even News Corp is actively campaigning to change the date. That has to count for something.

Instead of ‘celebrating’ Australia, the forces of culture and history are continuing to work to transform the date into a day of reflection; a true baring of the horrors at the heart of what Australia actually means.

These are not ideas that any government would bandy about if they wish to be electable to the current crop of voters. Therefore, Labor won’t be changing the date. And we all have a lot of work to do.

Related: Reframing the Date: Jack Latimore on Our Nation’s Annual Argument

Related: A Comprehensive Rundown of the Marches and Events Happening Across Australia on January 26

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