On January 26, Jenna Price asked how we could reshape Australia Day towards acknowledgement, reconciliation and peace. Many Australians ask the same question.
Her enquiry arises from an historical truth and the ache that Australia Day prompts each year in our hearts, suggesting that we can and should do better. It reminds us that for those Australians who were the original custodians of this land, January 26 will always be a day that began a damaging process of dispossession and a hurtful lie.
Talk of recognition of Aboriginal people in the nation's constitution is all very good, but progress seems snagged by political complexities and compromises. Given our record in passing referenda it seems it will take much longer than good sense and moral judgement may recommend. But there is something that we can do to help the country through this recurring trial. And we can be guided through our unfinished business as a people and a nation by our national floral emblem, the wattle.
Wattle has evolved in Australia for more than 30 million years. It has been the great witness to the whole Australian story – our companion even when we didn't realise it. It is our national symbol without par. Wattle has welcomed us all, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, colonials, post-war newcomers and more recent migrants from all lands. It is the source of our green and gold national colours, drawn from the palette of the leaves and blossoms of our national floral emblem (Acacia pycnantha), the golden wattle. Wattle is a unifying symbol and has no baggage in our national conversation.
National Wattle Day (September 1) has been an officially gazetted day since 1992, so why don't we think of both January 26 and September 1 as joint days on which we celebrate our great fortune to live peacefully in this land. Organised celebrations around the country on Wattle Day emerged in 1910 as a way that Australians expressed their loyalty to this land and their pride in calling it 'home'. These sentiments are no less relevant today.
Wattle's great journey across our land teaches us the importance of resilience and adaption. Over millennia it has survived and flourished by adapting to its conditions. More than ever the message of resilience and adaption is relevant to us as a people and a modern 21st century nation. Our Prime Minister could invoke no better symbol to reinforce his message that we must welcome and adapt to change. The wattle has demonstrated that it is a great survivor, one that has adapted to changes in climate and geography. Throughout it has delivered us a great bounty with its golden blooms from more than 1000 varieties, flowering in all parts of the country and in bloom somewhere in Australia every day of the year.
The solution may not simply be to diffuse the focus of the January 26 celebrations. Rather a real solution could be to link the two days, Australia Day and National Wattle Day, so that each provides scope for its own forms of national celebrations and perhaps some national reflection.
Currently National Wattle Day is celebrated widely across the country, but rather more quietly than is its January counterpart. It is rich in meaning but perhaps less endowed with celebratory fizz. Australia Day, on the other hand, seems increasingly at risk of being an empty celebration that craves an authenticity that National Wattle Day has, simply by virtue of the wattle symbol.
But more could be done to augment the September date, such as making it a focus for celebrating the land and the importance that we care for it and invoking the wonderfully appropriate symbolism of wattle, to welcome new settlers at citizenship ceremonies around the country. We could make it the date to announce Order of Australia awards, rather than the June Queen's Birthday. Another option would be to facilitate a form of national deliberative reflection by citizens on an issue of national significance (asking what is the right and best thing to do), as a way to draw on the wisdom of our people and the best of science and learning, informed by the lessons of living in this ancient land and the spirit of the land itself.
In these ways the two days could evolve in their own ways and after a period of say five years we could evaluate the changes and make decisions for the longer term. In doing so we could draw strength from the symbol we have had with us for 30 million years. The wattle has waited patiently to play its role in our national story. It unites all and offends no one. We could celebrate Australia Day but also celebrate and rediscover the real power and symbolism that unites us all.
Wattle can be a guide to our future. Let us discover that there are different ways to celebrate Australia. Ways that complete rather than compete with Australia Day. Let us think of National Wattle Day as another part of Australia Day, so that together they can take the nation forward.
Terry Fewtrell is the president of the Wattle Day Association Inc.wattleday.asn.au