Australia Day on January 25-26 a ‘noble’ compromise between old and new | Noel Pearson

Australia Day on January 25-26 a ‘noble’ compromise between old and new | Noel Pearson

The observance of Australia Day could commence on January 25 — the eve of the proclamation of British sovereignty over the east coast of the continent — and continue into January 26. This would straddle two sovereignties: the sovereignty of the First Nations that possessed this continent since time immemorial, and the crown’s sovereignty that commenced when the British flag was raised at Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788.

The announcement of Australian of the Year is already made on the evening of January 25.

Let me make the case for this linkage of January 25 and 26.

Australia’s pre-eminent historian of the 20 century, William Keith Hancock, writing in his 1931 book, Australia, titled his first chapter “The Invasion of Australia”. The conservative South Australian historian Archie Grenfell Price, in his 1949 book on America and Australasia, titled White Settlers and Native Peoples, also called it an invasion. He wrote:

“During an opening period of pioneer invasion on moving frontiers the whites decimated the natives with their diseases; occupied their lands by seizure or by pseudo-purchase; slaughtered those who resisted; intensified tribal warfare by supplying white weapons; ridiculed and disrupted native religions, society and culture …”

This was almost a half century before prime minister John Howard started talking about “black armband” history, channelling Geoffrey Blainey. But the revisionists included a Labor leader.

Invasion met with opposition from a new political correctness when Queensland premier Wayne Goss forbade the use of the word in school curriculums in 1994. Like Howard later, Goss’s motivation was electoral rather than historical. Invasion had been standard academic language describing the colonisation of Australia through the 20th century. It was only in its last decade that the term became politically incorrect thanks to politicians like Goss and Howard.

Given leading Australian historians wrote of invasion many years ago, we should call a spade a spade. Let’s not be Orwellian in our self-deception. Let’s accept that from the viewpoint of the Eora in Port Jackson — and every subsequent tribe — what the colonisers viewed as a settlement was an invasion.

This is why then PM Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech in 1992 is seminal. It owned up to the invasion and its consequences for the original peoples.

Let me now turn to why January 25 and 26 are our nation’s most profound dates.

For indigenous Australians and the many other Australians who empathise with the view that January 26 is “dancing on our ancestors’ graves”, as the hashtag puts it, January 25 should be a most important date. For on the eve of January 26 the entire east coast was held under the ancient sovereignty of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes, the First Nations of Australia. This sovereignty existed over the entire continent and its islands.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart describes this sovereignty as “a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or mother nature, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors”.

In retrospect, this 48-hour period is the most turbulent in the continent’s history, and for good reason. It is controversial, and will remain so for as long as we cannot find a way to unite around its meaning and reconcile, because profound things happened in those 48 hours. Sovereign possession extending back 65 millennia existed one day, and then a new sovereign possession was unilaterally asserted the next day. The new sovereignty treated the ancient sovereignty as if it never existed. There lies the pain and deeply held injustice. There lies the reason and imperative for recognition.

We can’t run away from January 26, the same as we can’t run away from January 25.

My fellow white Australians: the blackfellas were here on January 25, 1788, they were here for 65,000 years prior, they remained here on January 26 and have survived to this day. We can recognise and honour this.

My fellow black Australians: Captain Cook claimed possession in 1770, the whitefellas arrived in Botany Bay between January 18 and 20, and they asserted sovereignty on January 26, 1788 on behalf of the British crown. The whitefellas then created a commonwealth under a Constitution that excluded blackfellas in 1901. The whitefellas are not going to return to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. They are here to stay. We can recognise and honour this.

Greens MP Lidia Thorpe in Melbourne stands in a long tradition of indigenous advocacy, going back to 1938 when at the sesquicentenary of the First Fleet’s arrival, the Aborigines Advancement League called January 26 Invasion Day.

They were not alone. As I have pointed out, even conservative historians called the colonisation of Australia an invasion.

Greens leader Richard di Natale and Thorpe should think seriously about January 25 and the overlap from First Nations sovereignty to colonial sovereignty on January 26, which eventually became the commonwealth. Symbolically the only alternative dates for people coming from Thorpe’s perspective are between January 1 and 25, the days prior to the invasion.

Linking January 25 and 26 would be a noble compromise between the old and the new. It would bring together honour and empathy, remembrance and celebration.

Sydney Festival director and playwright Wesley Enoch told The Australian Financial Review this week that Australia Day should be more like Anzac Day: “It has a dawn service, it has a march and then an element of go and get drunk with your friends and play two-up. But on Australia Day we have no rituals, no way of marking all the different aspects of it.” Enoch is right. He is well placed to conceive how a reflective January 25 could end in celebration (of the arrival of the new Australians and the survival of the old) on January 26.

Trying to erase January 26 is denying the very history we want Australians to face up to. There is no other relevant time or date other than those 24-48 hours when ancient Australia passed into the new Australia.

The implications of that transition are precisely what we need to answer in a Makarrata between the commonwealth and states and First Nations. The Uluru Statement proposed that the Constitution be amended to enable the First Nations to have a voice to the parliament. It also proposed a Makarrata commission, set up in legislation, to supervise agreement-making between First Nations and the commonwealth. Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Uluru Statement out of hand, dishonestly claiming a First Nations voice would be a “third chamber of parliament”. The Prime Minister disserved the nation. His cannot be the last word on this.

We can reconcile around January 25-26. We can envisage a future where an honest accounting of historical truths: the invasion, frontier wars, colonial achievement, the making of modern Australia, indigenous survival and Makarrata — meaning “reconciliation after conflict” in the words of the Yolngu of northeast Arnhem Land ¬— will be common ground on the Australia Day long weekends of the future.

This cannot and won’t happen suddenly. There will be ruction and debate for some years yet. It will take time to build trust on both sides around the terms of a reconciled Australia Day long weekend.

It won’t happen simply because a bunch of government ministers exhort compliance with the neo-colonial view of January 26. They and former PM Tony Abbott do not understand that the arrival of whitefellas is one important part of, but not the only meaning of, Australia.

The Turnbull government’s attempts to enforce a new PC, patriotic correctness are not helpful. The Prime Minister should read his wife’s late uncle Robert Hughes’s crucial 1992 book, Culture of Complaint, to realise how wrong his dog-whistling on African-Australian youth crime and the neo-colonial version of Australia Day really is.

In 2014 the conservative philosopher Damien Freeman and now Liberal MP Julian Leeser proposed a declaration be developed outside the Constitution which sets out a national consensus statement of recognition.

The Referendum Council chaired by Mark Leibler and Pat Anderson, of which I was a member, recommended: “That an extra-constitutional Declaration of Recognition be enacted by legislation passed by all Australian Parliaments, ideally on the same day, to articulate a symbolic statement of recognition to unify Australians.”

This is a crucial opportunity for the country. Australia needs a Declaration of Australia and the Australian People. Australia has three stories: “the ancient indigenous heritage which is its foundation, the British institutions built upon it, and the adorning gift of multicultural migration”. A declaration could capture these three stories that make the one idea of Australia.

This was first articulated at the 50th anniversary of this newspaper in July 2014. The genius of Freeman and Leeser’s concept of an extra-constitutional declaration offers an apposite instrument to set out the reconciled meaning of Australia.

This will require a national leadership that is currently derelict, but I believe we will reconcile a new Australia Day long weekend when we have leadership and we all do the necessary work of building trust and common ground.


Scroll to Top