NEWS: ACT Australian of the year winner, centre  Dr Tom Calma, social justice campaigner. Awards announced at the Hyatt Hotel, Canberra.
21st November 2012
Photo by MELISSA ADAMS of The Canberra Times.

ACT Australian of The Year finalist, indigenous elder Dr Tom Calma. Photo: Melissa Adams

ACT Australian of The Year finalist, indigenous elder Tom Calma, wants a national debate on whether Australia Day should be moved to a more neutral date.

Dr Calma is one of eight finalists for Australia's top gong.

The indigenous leader, who has also served as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, was honoured for his work as an inspirational advocate for human rights and social justice.

Asked about what Australia Day meant to him, Dr Calma said he reflected on "our history, both the positive and negative sides".

Dr Calma said he was able to "intellectualise" the day a bit to celebrate its broad meaning.

"In the big spectrum, you get some people who are opposed to the notion of Australia Day ... people call it survival day or invasion day. All those notions are there," Dr Calma said.

He said there was merit in a public debate about whether Australia Day should be celebrated on a more neutral date.

"If we are going to understand our history we need to understand that if we want to be an inclusive society we need to come up with a time that's acceptable to people, that could mean a change of date of the event or having someway to recognise the impacts of the landing."

Dr Calma's dedication to improving the lives of indigenous people included writing a landmark report calling for the 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people to be closed.

That laid the groundwork for the Close the Gap campaign.

He is starting to see more cooperation between authorities and organisations working with indigenous communities.

Dr Calma hailed the prime minister's yearly reports on the progress of the close-the-gap goals, which started under Kevin Rudd and continued with Julia Gillard.

"That's the level of accountability we've been calling for to make sure governments stay focused," he said.

Dr Calma has lived in Canberra since 1992 and is an indigenous elder from the Kungarakan and Iwaidja tribal groups, whose traditional lands are southwest of Darwin and on the Coburg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.

AAP