Astute media watchers may have noticed that over the weekend, the Rudd government began hastily promoting Australia Day 2009 as having “special significance” to Indigenous people.

On Sunday, CEO of the Australia Day Council, Warren Pearson, hit the media hustings with a message of unity: “We’re calling on all Australians to reflect on what we’re getting right as a nation and to get to know other cultures in the nation, particularly Indigenous culture, because Australia Day can be an important process in the reconciliation movement,” he said.

Which is of course complete horsesh-t. The official spin (and it’s quite a stretch so bear with me) goes something like this: Because the national apology to the Stolen Generations was delivered in February last year, and this Australia Day will be the first one since, that makes it a really, really special day for black people.

Nonsense. For reasons that should be blindingly obvious, January 26 is never a “special day” for Aboriginal people, and never will be. Regardless, the story got a small run in mainstream media this week. And here’s why it has suddenly emerged as an issue.

Last week, the National Indigenous Times contacted the Prime Minister’s media office to ask if the PM was aware that prior to the federal election, his party promised it would move Australia Day to a date that can be celebrated by black Australians as well as white ones … And don’t worry about the noise you just heard in the distance, dear Crikey reader, that was just Alan Jones’ head spontaneously exploding.

Here’s the background. Every three years, the ALP stages the National Conference, its “highest decision making forum”. Out of that conference comes the National Platform, which “outlines Labor’s long-term principles”.

Chapter 13 of the National Platform (read it here) is titled “Respecting Human Rights and a Fair Go for All”. It’s the bit where the ALP hides all of its promises to lefties and black people. There’s a reason why it’s buried so far back in the document — the ALP knows that most journalists and conservative columnists will have died laughing after reading chapter 1 (“Enduring Labor Values”), and if they somehow make it further, they’ll certainly be dead of boredom by the end of Chapter 11 (“Reforming Government”).

Thus, by Chapter 13, the ALP knows it can get away with promising stuff like this: “Labor will implement the recommendations made in 2000 by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR).”

Here is what that Labor promise means:

  • If elected to government, Labor will sign a treaty with Aboriginal people (recommendations 5 & 6 of the CAR report).
  • If elected to government, Labor will implement the Roadmap for Reconciliation (recommendations 2 & 4), a document which accompanied the CAR’s final report to parliament.

The problem of Labor yet again promising a treaty but not delivering aside, it’s the latter — the Roadmap for Reconciliation — that will cause Rudd the most angst. In it, the Council notes: “The National Strategy to Sustain the Reconciliation Process sets out ways to build on progress towards reconciliation … Essential actions include … Governments, organisations and communities [negotiating] to establish and promote symbols of reconciliation. This would include changing the date of Australia Day to a date that includes all Australians.”

Can you imagine the outcry when white Australians discover what the loonies in the left of the ALP got through at their last national conference? Rudd’s office certainly can, which is why when they found out, they began hastily promoting Australia Day 2009 as “a special day for the Aborigines”, in the hope they might kill off the bigger story.

The argument for moving Australia Day to a more appropriate date is a no-brainer. It might not be a debate we like, but it is a debate that we have to have. It will not go away while January 26 remains our national day. Indeed, this very issue will be the topic of a major speech by NSW Aboriginal Land Council chair Bev Manton next week, and the subject of a protest by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in Launceston. And they won’t be alone. As sure as the sun rises, they will be joined and supported in protest by black people all over the nation. It happens every year.

There are some other inevitabilities in this issue that we have to accept as well. The first is that Labor will continue to break its promises to Aboriginal people in favour of populist politics. Secondly, despite the betrayals of government, relations between black and white Australians will still slowly improve. As a society we will evolve.

In the 1930s, the notion of Aboriginal people having the vote was ridiculous. In the 1980s in Queensland, the government branded the idea of equal pay for black workers unacceptable. In 2000, a national apology to members of the Stolen Generations was unthinkable.

And just look at us now. Sooner or later Australia Day will have to be moved to a more inclusive date.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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