Being a former colony of Great Britain is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Australia inherits a sophisticated legal system and cricket; on the other, we also inherit a less-than-flattering colonisation story. Every year, the conversation always comes around to Australia Day. This is our national day of celebration, unironically paying tribute to our arbitrary place of birth and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Unlike almost every former colony in the world, we choose to host our day of patriotic fervour on the day the British landed in Botany Bay: 26 January 1788. To our indigenous population, this is somewhat jarring, because previous treatment of the natives was shameful. The debate breaks down, almost inevitably in the current climate, along political lines. Conservatives think the Aborigines should stop whining and Liberals think we should kow tow to the mostly hysterical ravings of those wishing to change the name (and I suspect they are only half joking) to Invasion Day. Due to the polarisation of opinion on almost every topic worth talking about, it is unsurprising to discover that the positions of both camps are less than nuanced. It is my intention to cut a third way through the sociological terrain, and annoy both camps in the process.
The first limb of my argument takes issue with the stubborn adherence by conservatives to our national identity as an ex-colonial member of the Commonwealth. This rather complex attitude manifests itself in several different ways, ranging from opposition to Australia becoming a Republic, to the resistance of substantial immigration. The first thing to recognise is that the British did treat indigenous Australians less than well upon colonisation. The native inhabitants of Tasmania were almost totally wiped out during the 19th Century through a combination of disease and violence. The indigenous population of mainland Australia was also depleted through introduced diseases, appropriation of resources and land, and directed violence. These are facts, and whether people wish to admit it or not, Australia’s history is not one that is entirely rosy. By the same token, almost every country has, at some point, invaded and appropriated the land from another group of people. So the fetishisation of our dark past by those motivated by a masochistic sense of guilt is somewhat misplaced.
There are numerous accounts of Indigenous Australians attacking British settlers on sight. While one might put this down to the fact that the British were there in the first place, the human propensity for violence must take its share of the blame. But even after an examination of the history and a misguided attempt to apportion blame, an inconvenient fact becomes obvious: no person alive today is responsible for the actions of settlers over two hundred years ago. The people today who are blamed for the wrongs committed against Indigenous Australians in the past are justifiably outraged.
The identity politicking and culture of outrage fostered by those so predisposed has contributed to this division between those who came here by boat in 1788 and those who came by foot a few millennia earlier. This kind of dialogue not only admits of no solution, but is based on a distinction without a difference. Indigenous Australians are as entitled to call Australia home as European colonists, although their pious outrage gives the impression that their grievance is rooted in more than a game of ‘I saw it first’. There have undoubtedly been treated inhumanely, but human progress relies on forgetting past grievances and moving forward with a singular set of shared values. Imagine if France held a grudge against Italy for colonising them as Gaul in the First Century BC. European co-operation would be made impossible. Imagine if Germany was an international pariah because of their bellicose and genocidal actions less than a century ago. The geopolitical landscape of Europe would be severely destabilised. While acknowledging the morally reprehensible actions of colonists in the past is required and healthy, the continued demonisation of anyone who wants to move forward is irksome and irrational.
It may surprise you then, that I think that the date for our national day is the worst of all possible solutions. Australia was a colony, and as much fun as it was to be associated with the most reviled empire in modern times (an unjustified reputation), it makes sense to celebrate our independence from the British Empire, not our subservience to it. Consider briefly the national days of other former colonies: America has Independence Day and their separation from the mother country is one of the more acrimonious times in transatlantic relations. Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, and Cyprus are just some of the countries that celebrate gaining independence from Britain, not the day they were colonised. It makes no sense to celebrate the arbitrary discovery of a piece of rock by a group of people with almost no relevance to our society anymore. The formation of the Federation of Australia is a formative moment in our history and much more worthy of celebration than some British sailors “discovering” the east coast of Australia. Not only would changing the date satisfy those noisy activists who claim that it glorifies genocide (I would contend that most Australians spend the day worshipping at the altar of beer and steak, but I digress), it could also better reflect modern Australia and achievements relevant to our society.
Tom is a blogger and academic based in Australia. He is currently working to be admitted as a lawyer and wants to travel and write about his interest areas of politics, philosophy and science.