Australia Day change must be driven by public opinion, not imposed from above
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Australia Day change must be driven by public opinion, not imposed from above

While there is no doubt the date on which Australia Day is celebrated offends many people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent and their supporters, it should also be recognised any unilateral change imposed from above would likely do more harm than good.

We are, after all, talking about a celebration of nationhood which, until the 1988 Bicentennial, was all but devoid of popular interest and support. Australia Day was not uniformly and regularly observed across the nation on its official date until 1994.

Most Australians, unlike our American cousins, are generally suspicious of overt displays of nationalistic fervour, usually tending to agree with Dr Samuel Johnson that patriotism is "the last refuge of the scoundrel".

Given this, getting a noticeable percentage of the population to celebrate the occasion on the specified date rather than just rolling it into the nearest weekend was in itself a noteworthy piece of social engineering.

A side effect of that achievement has been to highlight the fact that for Australia's indigenous community January 26 has always been a day of mourning.

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The first public declaration of this perspective took place on January 26, 1938, to coincide with nationwide festivities to mark the sesquicentenary of European settlement.

While the "day of mourning" argument is valid, and there is no doubt that there are a host of alternative dates to choose from, the one thing that is still lacking is a groundswell of community support for a change.

If we cast our minds back to the recent same sex marriage debate which ended in landmark legislation being passed by the Parliament at the end of 2017, the same dynamic was in play.

When the postal poll was finally held it clearly established the population was well ahead of its elected leaders on the issue and that widespread, bipartisan, community support for marriage equality had evolved over many decades.

The Australia Day date change debate, which has been seized upon for their own purposes by organisations as diverse as JJJ and The Greens, is a long way short of that point at the moment.

If any government, either Labor or Coalition, imposed a date change right here and right now it would be met with a wave of indignation from many who could rightly argue they had not been consulted or respected.

There is also the point that, as with the apology in 2008, changing the date of Australia Day would be a symbolic act that might make a handful of activists feel good about themselves, but do nothing to alleviate the more pressing needs of the indigenous community.

In addition to alienating millions who may yet be won over to an alternative date, an arbitrarily imposed change would be a distraction from more important indigenous issues such as homelessness, intergenerational disadvantage, constitutional recognition and an appalling life-expectancy deficit.

There is a lot to be said for the view, enunciated on these pages by former Australian Republican Movement chairman, John Warhurst, on Thursday, that Australia Day should be celebrated on the date we become a republic.

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