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Australia Day needs to change - but not yet

Opinion

Australia Day should be celebrated on a different date, argues former South Australian Attorney-General Peter Duncan, but advocates for change must be patient or they could risk entrenching 26 January as our national day.

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There has been a great deal of commentary in recent years about the appropriateness or otherwise of 26 January as Australia Day. This commentary is more demanding each year, with the debate becoming almost a totemic issue in the so-called cultural wars.

There is little doubt that the majority of Australians are happy enough with the existing date and arrangements and wonder what all the fuss is about.

On the other hand, most Aboriginal Australians and their supporters see 26 January historically as a day which brought on a war, the outcome of which for Aboriginal people has been similar to the Holocaust.

Australia Day should be a day which unites all Australians rather than one which divides us. In light of that and the justified feelings of anguish and anger among Aboriginal citizens, I support moving Australia Day to another date at some time in the future.

Those supporting a move to another date, however, should be careful of pushing too hard for an early decision. My fear is that the conservative forces will see an opportunity to entrench 26 January as Australia Day by a public vote or plebiscite. Those in support of moving the national day have not yet settled on an alternative.

This situation is dangerous to the project of successfully moving to a new date.

Some are advocating 1 January – the date the federation commenced. January first is already a public holiday and is in a period of the year with ample public holidays. Others advocate Anzac Day, 25 April (please no). Still others are advocating the date of the High Court decision in the Mabo case – 3 June. None of these dates are ideal – to put it mildly.

Rather than attempting to force this issue at the present time, I think it would be better to delay any decision and resist pressure to make such a decision until after Queen Elizabeth dies or departs the throne. That historic moment should give a referendum for an Australian Republic with a directly elected head of state a real chance of successfully passing.

A sensible Australian Government could then arrange to introduce the republic on a date in the second half of the year when there is a dearth of public holidays.

Either immediately or subsequently, that date could become Australia Day, even if it didn’t happen concurrently with the introduction of a republic. Having a republic founding date could provide a day/date around which all those in favor of changing Australia Day could unite.

In this debate, we must think and act anew, and in a way which rightly puts the original Australians and young people front and centre.

A new republic and Australia Day could mark the beginning of an Australian social and political renewal. It could mark a time when people come together and reach for a bigger future.

People are already looking back on the successful marriage equality plebiscite with a degree of nostalgia. It proved that we can change the course of history.

The above proposals provide a measured response to the concerns of those who want to see the Australia Day date changed and a timeframe which, while not being expeditious enough for some,  would allow for planned change with the best chance of a positive outcome.

Peter Duncan was Attorney-General in the Dunstan Government and held a number of portfolios in the Hawke Government.

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