'YOU people in Australia haven't grown up yet. You think the Melbourne Cup is the most important thing in the world.'' This was Rudyard Kipling's unflattering summation of Australia when he caught up with fellow literary giant, Banjo Paterson, in England at the turn of the 20th century.
Sadly, Paterson's comeback to Kipling's slight on the antipodes was not recorded.
He might have pointed out that even by 1880, more than 100,000 people would make the journey to Flemington to attend the Cup. As Melbourne's population was only 290,000 at the time, this attendance was nothing short of amazing.
Dunaden ridden by Christophe Lemaire after winning the 2011 Melbourne Cup. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
He might have pointed out that unlike the imported public celebrations of Queen and Empire, the Melbourne Cup was the only festival universally popular and Australian in origin. It was commemorated by a public holiday in the colony of Victoria and was a source of celebration and distraction across the continent.
Or Paterson might simply have recited his 1886 poem A Dream of the Melbourne Cup to prove the grip the race already had on public imagination and the still nascent national identity.
Now, more than 100 years later, Cup day is bigger than ever. It is even more deeply ingrained as a revered sporting, social and cultural event that touches the heart and helps define our national identity. Indeed, it is time for Melbourne Cup day to take the next step and be commemorated as a national public holiday to be celebrated in all Australian states and territories.
A survey of public holidays across Australia suggests this could be achieved surprisingly easily, provided there is the will.
But first, let's take on the arguments implicit in Kipling's charge against Australia. Yes, a public holiday to celebrate a horse race is, well, absurd. Yes, a public holiday to commemorate an activity closely associated with gambling is confounding - most days of national significance promote values of virtue not vice.
Yet there is still something very special about the Melbourne Cup, something that makes it unique and deserving of a national holiday. To start with, it is not a day of significance that has been manufactured by the government, such as a bank holiday or even Australia Day. In part its status comes from its grassroots popularity with the Australian people, a position it has held for most of its 151-year history.
In a nation as young as ours, that is a tradition that is unrivalled.
Perhaps more importantly, the event brings Australians together in a social way that no other secular public holiday does. Most people whether at work, school or home, stop and watch the race. Across the country, people gather at BBQs and garden parties, community clubs and local pubs - spring is in full bloom, the decorations are out, people frock up, the Cup sweep is seemingly ubiquitous.
Religious days such as Christmas or Easter remain important times for family. But the Cup brings friends, colleagues and neighbours together in a way that other secular public holidays do not. It is increasingly becoming an unofficial public holiday outside of Victoria - it has become not just the ''race'' but the ''day'' that stops the nation. Here is a test: try getting someone anywhere in Australia to return a work call after 2pm on Cup day.
If Australia's founding fathers could not agree on a uniform national rail gauge, there was no hope for a national system of public holidays.
The current arrangements are a dog's breakfast of different days and dates. However, a review of state and territory legislation in this area suggests that correcting at least one mistake of federation might be easier than you might think. Here is how it can be done:
NSW. Abolish the bank holiday in August - hardly a day of great historic or cultural significance - and replace it with Melbourne Cup day in November.
ACT. Replace Family and Community Day in September - Australia's most bureaucratically over-engineered public holiday - with Melbourne Cup day.
Northern Territory. Abolish Picnic Day in August and replace it with Melbourne Cup day.
Queensland. A state government review in 2011 found the Queen's Birthday was not widely celebrated in Queensland and it was moved from June to October to create a holiday in the second half of the year. Why not move the Queen's Birthday public holiday to the first Tuesday in November?
Western Australia. In WA they celebrate the Queen's Birthday in October; move it to Melbourne Cup day.
Tasmania. Move Recreation Day, which is held in the north of the state on the first Monday in November, to Melbourne Cup day. For southern Tasmania, move the Queen's Birthday from June to Melbourne Cup day.
South Australia. The South Australians have the Adelaide Cup day holiday in March. Rather than move this public holiday, the state should move the Queen's Birthday holiday in June.
With these changes Australia would get a more uniform system of public holidays and a more meaningful national public holiday. Yes, it is a little absurd and encourages vice, but it is also home-grown, brings Australians together and is part of who we are.
Now all that is needed is the public will and the political leadership to make it happen.
As Banjo Paterson said in his Melbourne Cup poem: ''Stoke it in, boys!''
Nicholas Reece is a public policy fellow at Melbourne University's Centre for Public Policy and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby.