And so Australia Day rolls around again, with the usual somewhat half-hearted public controversy over its meaning and significance. Last night, Thomas Keneally told a commemorative “Australian of the Year” event that he was now reconciled to celebrating the day, believing “it has come to stand for a duality of experiences, genesis and loss”.
Clearly not everyone feels the same way: many will mark tomorrow as “invasion day” or “survival day”, and many more will be blissfully unaware of any historical significance at all.
There’s nothing wrong with historical debate, and no reason why everyone should share the same interpretation of their country’s history. But with Australia Day, it seems almost as if the debate (such as it is) is the only historical content there is: that if you took away the celebrity angst, there would be nothing left of the day at all, nothing to mark it out from any other summer holiday.
Contrast, for example, with Anzac Day, which is also the site of historical controversy, but where the controversy takes place against a background commemoration of a real event of real importance. People disagree about its interpretation, but they agree that it means something, and even those who avoid the debate altogether and just enjoy the holiday still mostly understand how it originated.
So here’s a modest suggestion for alleviating some of the Australia Day uneasiness and bringing it more into line with popular expectations: let’s go back to celebrating it by a long weekend, and give up the experiment of a fixed holiday that always falls on January 26.
The fixed-day holiday was a piece of right-wing political correctness from the 1980s and ’90s to boost patriotic sentiment. It was also supported by the business lobby, attracted by the idea of not having to give workers a holiday when the 26th fell on a weekend (a dubious benefit even in its own terms, since it also promotes absenteeism when, like this year, the 26th falls mid-week and workers take off extra days for continuity).
But historical significance can’t be manufactured out of whole cloth. The respect we give Anzac Day isn’t just an artifact of the calendar, any more than the July 4 in the United States or July 14 in France. The fixed holiday can’t disguise the fact that the landing in Sydney Cove is not felt as an occasion of national significance. It would make sense as a local Sydney holiday; as a national day it is purely arbitrary.
Few will want to give up a holiday, and the chance of winning popular support to rename the day or move it to some other time of year seems minimal. We’re stuck with Australia Day. But there’s no reason we have to be stuck with the fixed date that disrupts our planning and often deprives us of a holiday. That represents a recent change, and it could be changed back.
In the old days, Australia Day meant something: the end of the summer holiday period, celebrated with a long weekend so that even those who had been back at work for a couple of weeks could enjoy a bit more holiday spirit, innocent of historical controversy. Would it really be contrary to our national character to try to return it to that?