Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Australia Day – a holiday designed by a committee

My apologies for this non-timely posting:

The Western Desert lives and breathes at 45 degrees*
But Melbourne doesn’t.

Mick Dodson’s call for Australia’s national day celebrations to be moved to a date other than 26 January was a brave move, for two reasons. Dodson was speaking as an individual on a matter in which obscure groups have seemingly always dominated the field, and he wasn’t championing a specific alternative date. Not only was a refusing to be a team player in this most team-ly of sports then, he was also pre-empting the possibility of individuals wanting to join, or at least barrack for, his X-date embryonic side.

The history of Australia Day, and its Indigenous counter-day, is a nice parable of going nowhere with provincial aplomb in the former instance, and just strangely petering out in the latter.

Predictably, a new nation whose first legislative move in 1901 was famously a bill to exclude Asian immigrants was not at all focused on a unifying national holiday. In any case it probably lacked constitutional power to do so. Getting the bickering states to agree to anything would naturally result in the lowest common denominator, and voila, in 1905 Empire Day, 24 May (the birthday of Queen Victoria, who had died four years previously), was instituted as a public holiday.

The then-reigning monarch would have been flattered by a bag-o-bones being honoured in lieu, I’m sure. But showing the durable adhesion of messy compromises, aka empty patriotism, Empire Day has survived to this day as a uniform national (except WA) holiday with only a slight shift in its title and observance date: Queen’s Birthday, on the second Monday in June.

In 1911, some Sydney Irish Catholic Church leaders dared to re-label Empire Day “Australia Day”. Perhaps this sectarian kite-flying was behind the push of the Australian Natives’ Association (ANA) from about 1930 to institute a supplemental national public holiday named Australia Day, to be celebrated on, or soon after, 26 January (same URL). It is unclear why the ANA were adamant that the uniform date had to be on the Monday following the 26th, unless of course the 26th was a Monday. Perhaps the long-weekend factor was a condition of obtaining state unanimity. In any event, this triumph of committee power and inscrutability, effective from 1935, was to sleep on unchallenged for almost another 60 years, before another committee couldn’t resist, or be stopped from, putting its own stamp on the issue.

In 1994, the National Australia Day Committee (NADC), after years of lobbying the states (and presumably also Australia’s least-jingoist ever PM, Paul Keating) managed to – drum roll, please – tweak the date so that the national holiday would henceforth always be on 26 January, exactly. This momentous change is something I’m sure ex-PM John Howard will go to his grave regretting he was not personally present to supervise, and then wheel out before the adoring masses like a proud parent. As it was, the self-congratulation at the time appears to have reached its zenith within the pages of the NADC’s annual report which crowed: “One nation - one day - Australia's Day!” (same URL). Never mind that Australia Day had been uniform already for 59 previous years.

The story of the Indigenous counter-day to Australia Day is contrasting in its transparency, even it this story is (judging by Wikipedia’s entry on the subject) little-known. On 26 January 1938, the sesqui-centenary, there was a national Aboriginal Day of Mourning. From 1940, “Aboriginal Sunday” was observed, as an arguable continuation of the Day of Mourning, on the day (Sunday) preceding the Australia Day public holiday**. For white Australians the focus of this observance on the day was in their churches.

Aboriginal Sunday continued on this basis until 1955. Then, acting upon a non-Indigenous committee’s concern that the day was muted by its being in the middle of a summer long-weekend, the Federal and state governments contrived to endorse a simple 180-degree move, to the first Sunday in July (ibid). That is, far removed from proximity to any public holiday, while also not being a public holiday itself. Otherwise, the new date/“date” seems arbitrary, if not meaningless, from an Indigenous perspective. Pastor Doug Nicholls was incisive about the 1955 committee switcheroo:

“Why was the date changed? Did they think that such painful memories took from the pride of Australia Day? Did they think that the reminder was too much? We didn’t argue about the change to the July date – but we should have. On Australia Day . . . [i]t’s still our Day of Mourning.” (ibid)

Aboriginal Sunday has now morphed into NAIDOC Week in early July. “NAIDOC” is usually glossed as National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee, but I much prefer the unofficial alternative without the c-word: National Aboriginal and Islander Day of Commemoration, even if this sits awkwardly with the Week suffix.

There are many more likely specific dates for a re-envisioned Indigenous counter-day to Australia Day. The 1940-54 original – which could now be fixed to 25 January – is actually not a bad one, in my opinion. Mabo Day in June, or 1967 referendum day in May, are some others.

If a legal Indigenous-rights milestone is to be chosen, however, two dates stand out above all others, in my opinion. The first is 31 October 1975, the date on which the national Racial Discrimination Act took effect. Without this Act, there could have been no Mabo as we know it. The 1967 referendum changes were also hollow until after this Act was passed, and subsequent High Court cases bound the then nakedly racist states of Qld and WA to its parameters.

The second likely-candidate date I am not even sure of. It is when Western Australia ceased the practise of using neck-chains on Indigenous prisoners and remandees. Neck-chains were still in use in the West in 1960 (ibid, p 90). It is likely that their use ceased sometime in the 1960s, perhaps with the passing of the Native Welfare Act 1963 (WA), which removed the power to whip Indigenous men for some criminal infractions#. I’m not sure why, but I find neck-chains even more shocking than licensed whipping – possibly because the former is widely known about through photographs (albeit usually sepia-tinged ones, i.e. from long before our lifetimes), yet no one, AFAICT, has highlighted the definite end of this inhuman practice. Maybe a committee did it; this time a self-effacing committee, who wanted to erase their change – and with it, all the prior torture and degradation of Indigenous men – from the record.

* “Beds are Burning” by Midnight Oil
** Mavis Thorpe Clark, Pastor Doug, Seal Books 1975, pp 110-111.
# John Chesterman and Brian Galligan, Citizens without rights, CUP 1997, p 169.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?