A Day of Mourning

Tim Costello ponders the complexities of January 26, and whether there's something to be gained by changing the date of Australia Day.

Over the last several years we have seen the growth of dissent about the symbolism of January 26th as Australia Day. Most of us want to celebrate our nation’s achievements and own the history of the last 240 years. Most other nations have a national day so that in itself should not be controversial. But for us it is, and knowing more and more about the shadow side of Australia Day means it is becoming harder to celebrate with every passing year. And it is likely to only get more fraught. Why?

Firstly it recognises not the birth of Australia which was at Federation in 1901 but the setting up of an antipodean prison to relieve Britain’s overflowing jails. After the loss of the American colonies, the British solution of transportation did not change, so they were in desperate need of a new dumping ground.

So the PM’s statement that it was ‘not so flash’ for the convicts on those 11 ships was not inaccurate (even if it was insensitive). There might be more sense in Jan 26th being a day of mourning the harshness both for those who came and those who were here already, than a celebration.

Also, this day remembers British imperial policy that failed its own tests of international law. It claimed sovereignty over the whole east coast on the lie of terra nullius. Even its century of treaty-making with Native Americans was not followed here. Instead it simply appropriated all land and property to the Crown.

Yes, for me a day of mourning is about right for the 26th, and another date should be chosen for an inclusive celebration of our national achievements.