The Long Lie
I have absolutely no problem celebrating on January 26… when I’m in India.
That is the anniversary of the day in 1950 when India was declared an independent republic, free of both its colonial masters and the British crown. A coincidence that makes the Australian festivities around January 26 all the more perplexing and demeaning.
For obvious reasons, the First Nations will not, cannot, ever be happy with a national holiday marking invasion, dispossession and the long lie of terra nullius. But surely rational immigrants must feel uncomfortable in rejoicing at the idea of raising a foreign flag to inaugurate a penal colony designed purely as a dumping ground for the despised and unwanted of Mother England.
Obviously the Land of Hopeless Tories hardly saw it as a patriotic occasion for the outpost on the other side of the earth and the bureaucrats of Whitehall, who neither knew nor cared whether their human cargo lived or died, or even acknowledged the existence of those who had lived there for some 50,000 years, simply ignored it.
They did not think of it as Australia Day – indeed, Australia would not even exist for another 113 years… There is much to be proud of in our modern history, but January 26 1788 is not part of it – on every level it is more of a shame and embarrassment than a matter for self-congratulation.
Yet in 2020 the cultural warriors of the reactionary right carry on as if the timing of the birthday of our nation, as they like to put it, is a matter of such earth-shaking importance that even debating it is a kind of treason.
Arrant nonsense, obviously – but it should make sensible Australians, black, white and everything in between, consider not only the absurdity if the date but possible alternatives.
Apart from the considerations above, the hard fact is that the British connection to Australia has become so tenuous as to be all but irrelevant. We are already, triumphantly, a multicultural society – arguably, as Scott Morrison boasts, the most successful on earth.
Australians of British ancestry are an increasingly minor component of the great mix, and although we (like most democratic nations) owe much to British law, politics and culture, we most certainly do not see ourselves as the descendants of what used to be called the Mother Country.
As we now sing with gusto, we are one, but we are many – I am, you are, we are Australian. So if we are to have a national day (and this is itself is worth debating) it has to be unequivocally Australian. And then comes the problem. January 1, the anniversary of Federation in 1901, presents obvious logistical problems, and the other suggestions (like May 9, the opening of the first parliament) are no more than stop gaps. So let’s look to the future – and specifically to India.
When this country eventually and inevitably becomes a republic, it will be the obvious time. But more thoughtful commentators are now pointing out that the republic will be incomplete without the reconciliation with the original Australians. So this must come first: the treaty, or Makaratta, which confirms that all of us are indeed one, that we can genuinely sing with one voice.
Once that is negotiated, we can take our place as a proud, united and independent people, willing to face our history, and, for all its flaws, missteps and prevarications, to take real control of it and celebrate it.
That will be the time for flags and fireworks. January 26 is, in the end, no more than an excuse for a self-indulgent and self-deluded piss-up.
Mungo MacCallum is an Australian political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.