Australia Day is our Confederate flag. It's not that a better date can't be found – a worse date can't be found. The great historical divide in this country is between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. No day brings that divide into sharper or deeper focus than January 26, and an occasion which supposedly exists to bring us together serves each year to drive us apart.
The pity of the Australia Day controversy is that it needn't have happened. Originally it was a celebration confined to New South Wales which went by names such as Anniversary Day or First Landing Day or Foundation Day. Victoria, which prided itself on embodying a different notion of Australian identity from the old convict colonies of NSW and Tasmania, didn't come aboard with the Sydney idea of January 26 being Australia Day until 1931.
The next date considered significant in the growth of Australia Day is 1994 when it became the occasion for declaring the Australian of the Year award. But by then the "history wars" were getting underway and soon after, encouraged by the Howard government and under the shadow of Hansonism, the European narrative of Australian history was aggressively promoted and Australia Day exploded in popularity, most significantly among the young. The day has now merged with rock events such as Big Day Out, enhancing their populist appeal while at the same time further obscuring the fundamental dilemma with the date.
Nations can address such matters. Sooner or later, they have to. New Zealand is in the process of changing its flag which, up until now, has had the Union Jack in the corner. Presumably, if the Scots had won their bid for national independence last year, the Union Jack would have ceased to be flown in what remained of Great Britain or at least the blue of Scotland's flag would have been taken out. What would we have done here in Australia? Would we have continued as we were with, as part of our flag, a flag that no longer existed? You'd like to think not but, then again, around that time we did make Prince Philip a knight.
In his outstanding 2014 Quarterly Essay "A Rightful Place", Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson wrote that "no matter how much white Australians might want to ignore it or black Australians might want to reject it", the modern state of Australia has both Indigenous and British heritage. Other national types, principally the Irish, arrived with the First Fleet. Lots of others have come since and added to the simmering pot of Australian identity.
Pearson has long argued that major change can only be brought about in this country by conservative leaders and conservative governments. It is in this spirit, therefore, that I invite former prime minister John Howard to reflect on the wisdom of celebrating Australia Day on January 26, the date of white arrival in this country, an event which began a chain of disastrous consequences for the indigenous population of our land.
Howard showed he had elements of a statesman during the gun debate and East Timor's bid for independence from Indonesia. He is one step removed from the political fray, which is the best place for such a discussion to begin. I invite him to reflect on whether Australia Day, as it stands, is in the best interests of our country.
We want a day when everyone can proudly be themselves, when we reflect upon this amazing land and the enormous span of its full human history, when we are glad to be here and share that gladness. A fun day certainly, but not a day that each year releases poison into our body politic.
Martin Flanagan is a senior writer at The Age.