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It’s time for a new “unifying moment”

Mike Steketee writes in Inside Story (23.1.18) about the continuing debate over whether Australia’s national day should continue to be celebrated on January 26, the date marking the establishment of a penal colony in New South Wales and the beginning of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples.

‘Most of the ubiquitous opinion polls in recent months suggest that a majority of Australians oppose changing the date of Australia Day from the anniversary of Arthur Phillip’s landing at Sydney Cove. But could the poll results reflect the fact that most people haven’t given the subject a great deal of thought? A survey commissioned by the Australia Institute found that only half of Australians know that Australia Day marks the arrival of the First Fleet, and fewer feel that the date is offensive to Indigenous Australians. It also suggested that Australians are attached to the idea of a national day but don’t necessarily believe it needs to be held on 26 January.

‘To argue, as did citizenship and multicultural affairs minister Alan Tudge last week, that the day is “a great unifying moment for this country,” let alone to imply that it is somehow a sacred part of our tradition, is absurd. As historian Ken Inglis pointed out many years ago, 26 January was celebrated sporadically and in various forms in the early decades of last century, and it was not until 1931 that Victoria adopted the name Australia Day. Other states followed later.

‘… while the date of our national day is only one small element in dealing with the past, it is hard to see how reconciliation can be advanced if we continue to assert that 26 January is a great unifying moment or fail to acknowledge that the benefits bestowed by Western civilisation came at a very high cost for the original inhabitants.’

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