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Carrillo Gantner AC on Australia Day

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Celebrating our National Day on January 26 each year marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the co-called “First Fleet” of British ships at Port Jackson in what was then known as New Holland, and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove by Captain Arthur Phillip to mark the establishment of the penal colony of New South Wales.

Australians don’t seem to remember that, about 15 years earlier, Captain James Cook had claimed the eastern seaboard of this land for Great Britain by planting the Union Jack on Possession Island off the coast of Queensland.

Today, I suspect most Australians think more about the happiness of a family holiday together before schools go back, a BBQ with friends or an excursion to the beach, than the significance of this landing of Europeans on a distant shore and its destructive impact on the Indigenous peoples whom we know had lived here for over 60,000 years. 

We have some unusual holidays in this country. For instance, in Victoria we stop for a horse race and, more recently, a football game; in the Northern Territory 6 August is ‘Picnic Day’; and we celebrate the Queen’s birthday on different dates in different states and not one of these dates is actually the Queen’s birthday. Why should we not celebrate the opening of a prison in New South Wales, because that is what this day marks?  

January 26 was originally known more politely as ‘NSW Foundation Day’. It was not until 1935 that all Australian states and territories adopted use of the term ‘Australia Day’, although it was celebrated on different dates in different states. Not until 1994, less than 30 years ago, was January 26 consistently marked by a public holiday in all states and territories. 

In contemporary Australia, this holiday is marked by the presentation of the Australian of the Year Awards, the announcement of the Australia Day Honours list, and addresses from the Governor-General and the Prime Minister.  With shared community events, with concerts, citizenship ceremonies and countless private functions of every description, the day is celebrated in large and small communities and cities right around this nation. 

There are so many reasons why we like this day. There is now also a very legitimate debate about whether it the best possible choice for a national day that is meant to bring us all together. I count myself among a growing minority of Australians who think this date is not the best possible choice and I believe strongly that eventually a change will be made. 

Apart from the fact that the date does not mark the first European landings in this country, not even the first British fleet nor even the claim to the land for the British Crown; apart from the fact that it marks a landing in a place called New Holland rather than Australia, that it represents the establishment of the prison colony of New South Wales and not the newly united Australian nation; apart from the fact that it was a very unhappy day for both the 800 exiled convicts and their soldier guards aboard the fleet; apart from all of these significant issues, how can it be a date that brings us all together when the date is a day of such anguish for Indigenous Australians as it marks the start of the process of murder, theft, dispossession of their land and destruction of their culture, a process that was often brutal, violent and immoral even by the standards of the time, as contemporary protests show? Not surprisingly, the Indigenous people have called this day a “day of mourning”, “Invasion Day” or more recently “Survival Day”. 

Like most nations in the world, modern Australia was born in pain and blood. We cannot change this history. We can, however, choose how we remember and acknowledge our history. To move together towards a richer future, we must face the truth of our past. I understand and respect the fact that these are contested issues, but should we not, therefore, try to find another date that better represents our shared national aspirations to be a better country?

We all have so much cause for pride. We have built a country that in many respects is the envy of the world, even if there are many different and serious issues that may concern each of us. People risk their life to get here because Australia represents prosperity, equality, independence, freedom and happiness.

We are not a big nation in terms of population, but individual Australians have big hearts, whether this is expressed locally through voluntary service – there is no better example than the quiet heroes of the CFA – or nationally in appeals that respond so compassionately to natural disasters, most recently the massive fires,both in Australia and overseas. Can we not apply the same big heart to our thinking about Indigenous issues and try to see this issue of our National Day from their point of view?

As the National Anthem almost puts it:

“In history’s page let every stage Advance a Fair Australia”.

There are many possible dates across the year for Australia Day. I just want a date that has powerful symbolism about the creation of the modern Australian nation and of its democracy. And I want a date in which every one of us can share pride, whether we are descendants of the original Indigenous custodians of this land, of the early British and Irish settlers here, or of the wonderful diversity of modern multicultural Australia be it European, Asian, Middle Eastern or any other. 

Many people will no doubt prefer to keep this date in January as our National Day, or they may have their own preferred alternative. Bring on the debate. For me there are just two overriding considerations in making this choice: what is the day’s national significance, and how can it best bring all of us together as one proud, modern Australian family.

Carrillo Gantner AC is Chairman of the Sidney Myer Fund

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14 responses to “Carrillo Gantner AC on Australia Day

  1. For years I have argued for New Years Day. On new years day 1901 we became a country rather than a group of colonies. Its a date decided by the Parliament in London for the foundation of a new country called Australia, rather than just the name of a big island

  2. Carrrillo Gantner is a sage and sane voice on this topic. We can only hope that he is right in his presumption that one day … hopefully sooner rather than later … the date for this shared celebration is changed.
    60 000 years deserves more respect.

  3. When (if?) we finally become a republic could become our national day. It would leave NSW people able to remember their foundation day if they wished; it would give broader recognition to each of the states’ and territories’ foundation days too. And we could mark a date when the Indigenous Voice to Parliament or the conclusion of the Mataranka or a Treaty Day with our First Nation peoples as when we truly become a united nation.

  4. Bravo Carrillo. Agree totally. January 26 smells worse with each passing year. The day Federation took effect makes sense. May the debate increase in urgency with appropriate leaders leading the debate. You, the co-ordinators of The Uluru dream from the Heart and a sampling of non-indigenous types should come together asap. There are also surely one or two members of the Federal and State Governments willing to be seen and heard on the issue. To lead.

  5. Well done Carillo. We do need to have a respectful and meaningful discussion about what our national day should mean to all of our country’s citizens. For me that day could be May 9th. It was on this day in 1901 that the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) opened the first parliament of Australia in the Exhibition Building in Melbourne (so wonderfully portrayed by Australian painter Tom Roberts). And it was on this day in 1927 that the old Parliament House in Canberra was opened by the Duke of York (later King George VI) and the Duchess of York. And it was on this day in 1988 that our current Parliament House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II. And so May 9th is significant across more than a century as the date that saw all three of our parliament buildings officially opened.
    And it should be our federal parliament that is the focus of our celebration as a nation. Its creation bound our states together into one nation. It was our parliament that was responsible for a range of socially progressive reforms across the years and it was our parliament that belatedly recognized our first peoples as equals after the referendum of 1967. Our parliament has, and will continue to be, the instrument of the people to make and amend laws that ensure fairness and equality for all our nation’s citizens.
    And hopefully, when we do become a republic, the date of proclamation will be May 9th thus binding this critical day in our past to our nation’s future.

  6. I tried May 9 when I was managing Australia Day in Melbourne years ago. Makes perfect sense to Victorians, absolutely no interest from anyone else nationally. And New Year’s Day has a sort of logic but is entirely overshadowed by the inertia that will follow New Year’s Eve, not to mention the same issues of heat, limited school participation, possible flooding, bushfires etc that bedevil Australia Day at the end of January. If we can find a date with a bit of meaning, it should be a shoo-in to change – best I can do is Wattle Day. It’s not easy finding an alternative with some resonance and there’s some resistance to ‘any old date’.

  7. Let’s face it, the date has nothing to do with the nation we refer to as Australia – it is no more than the commemoration of the foundation of the colony of New South Wales. It is of no more significance to the nation than 28th December, which I am sure all Australians know is the date in 1836 of the establishment of the FREE settlement of the colony of South Australia. This date IS of significance because it set the standard of the social ideals which we all take for granted in this nation. And yet more South Australians acknowledge NSW’s foundation day than they do that of their own colony. I’m not convinced that Victorians give a rat’s about any significance the 26th January might have to some – it’s just an excuse for another day off work.

  8. I suggest that we might celebrate humanity’s discovery of this island continent rather than the nation-state currently in occupation.

    The discovery was in two stages:

    Stage 1 involved what were probably the first successful crossings of the open ocean by human beings – at least 60,000 years ago and maybe as much as 100,000. It resulted in settlements here by many clans with profound cultures and great skills, who related to their neighbours but believed that their world was the whole world.

    Stage 2 was a process of mainly coastal exploration and mapping over three centuries by Europeans – Portuguese, Dutch, French and British – leading to the claiming and colonisation of the continent by British settlers and ultimately the present nation-state.

    The culmination of the discovery in Stage 2 was the circumnavigation and charting of the entire continent by Matthew Flinders, and the culmination of his work was the sending of a letter dated 23 August 1804 to Sir Joseph Banks – a letter containing Flinder’s superb charts and his suggestion that the continent be named ‘Australia’.

    With that action, Australia arrived as such on the threshold of worldwide human consciousness.

    I would suggest that Stages 1 and 2 might both be celebrated on 23 August. However:
    – a date in late winter is not a good date for a national day
    – it still has a whiff of British imperialism about it – albeit, of the good side of same.

    But maybe my suggestion will prompt someone to come up with a better idea on the same lines.

    The

  9. What? None of you, including the author, have read Robert Hughes’ “The Fatal Shore”?
    As I walked past the local first nations’ centre yesterday I lowered my eyes before the flag at half mast. We are all sorry. But what better day to remember this?

    Carillo – a pandering and simplistic , historically weak, even “Melbourecentric” piece. Maybe we should just call it “NSW day” recalling that at that time NSW included most of the Australian main land (that includes Victoria) and even New Zealand.

  10. Re Australia Day
    Would all this drawn out debate be resolved if the Australian people demanded from the Australian Government that on January 26. 2021 the Uluru Statement was enacted and a treaty was signed. All Australians could then celebrate wholeheartedly, couldn’t they?

  11. It’s a scandal we don’t celebrate Federation but yes we’re all tired and headachy from the party the night before. But I say March 3 for Australia Day. We’d be commemorating the passing of the Australia Act 1986 (!) which finally meant the British Parliament could no longer legislate with effect in Australia.

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