As we approach another Australia Day, public interest quickens and rhetoric escalates. On both sides of the front line the old trenches are reoccupied and well-known strategies rehearsed. The hostility of indigenous Australians looms large in the thinking of both camps. Opponents of 26 January frequently rest their arguments on the need to respond to those powerfully expressed sentiments. Defenders of the status-quo insist that the will of the majority should take precedence.
This is a segment of the battlefield where not much will change. First Nations people have every reason to regard as an affront celebrations focussed on the 26th. They will continue to refer to it as Invasion Day and they will maintain their rage. Why would we expect anything less? The trenches are deep and well supplied. Morale is high.
The determination of the day’s proponents requires wider consideration. Numerous opinion polls provide useful information about community attitudes. A large majority of Australians wants to be have an occasion to celebrate the nation and attendant way of life. Clearly many of them would feel the same if the chosen day was changed. And then there is the paradox that many people are not really sure why 26 January has been chosen. Some think it commemorates Cook’s arrival on the east coast in 1770. Even those who feel most strongly about the sacrosanct 26th find it hard to overcome the difficulty that, of the various days associated with the foundation of Sydney, the 26th is less significant than the 20th with the arrival of the fleet or the even more portentous moment of 7 February when the annexation was officially consummated. The 26th was an appropriate day to commemorate the founding of Sydney; it is far less suitable as a national holiday.
The defenders of the status-quo take comfort from the fact that not all that much happened on their chosen day and the leader of the expedition, Arthur Phillip, appeared to take seriously his official instructions to treat the resident Aboriginal clans with ‘amity and kindness’ and to incorporate them into the settlement as British subjects. In this way the early days on and around Sydney Harbour can be detached from subsequent violence out on the ever expanding frontiers. But it was the official proclamations formally read on 7 February which predetermined the violence and destruction of the following century. In what was an extraordinary decision, there was to be no recognition of either Aboriginal sovereignty or property rights. It was a truly egregious decision made in complete defiance of the spirit of existing international law. And however did people who had been accepted as British subjects become dispossessed by the Crown? The assumption of the policy- makers in Britain was that either the continent was largely uninhabited or that the Aborigines were too primitive to have any legal claim on the land. This decision remained at the heart of Australian law until the High Court’s Mabo judgement in 1992.
So why ever on earth do any Australians want to celebrate the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney in the last week of January 1788? Is it a consequence of complete ignorance of what actually happened? Do they seriously hope to justify the grandest of grand larceny carried out by the Crown? The theft of property over half a continent has few parallels in history. In defence it might be argued that the British authorities did not realize that there were prior owners. But it was a defence which would not have carried much weight in British courts as they sentenced thousands of petty thieves to transportation to Australia. This is not a matter that concerns indigenous Australians alone. It should weigh on all our shoulders as a matter of spectacular injustice as grave of any of the great human rights disasters of the last two centuries. How do we get our history so wrong? There are many aspects of the past and present suitable for celebratory bouts of sunny hedonism. January 26 1788 is manifestly not one of them. How could it be?
Clearly the tussle over 26 January is just one campaign in Australia’s ongoing culture wars. Conservatives seek to accomplish two objectives. They want the nation to celebrate those aspects of contemporary Australia which meet with their approval. But crucially they want to tie those achievements to our British heritage. It represents the last determined stand of the Anglo-Australians fighting to hold onto traditional redoubts in a rapidly changing world. This should come as no surprise. Australian conservatives have always been Empire-minded. The venerated founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, declared himself to be ‘British to the bootstraps’ and acted accordingly. John Winston Howard was both a Menzies disciple and his biographer.
It is, then, unsurprising that the arrival of the First Fleet assumes an exaggerated importance among a generation afflicted with chronic Anglo-philia. But how our national story is thereby distorted! The underlying assumption is that we owe our political institutions and democratic manners to Mother England; that Australia was essentially a derivative society. This is seen most clearly in the belief that our democracy was shipped in from Britain. Hence the constant reference to the ‘Westminster System’ which not only distorts our history but radically diminishes the creative spirit of colonial and early federal politics. Our institutions and customs were made here in Australia. As soon as the colonies gained internal self-government in the 1850’s, they spun off from Britain on trajectories of their own. With federation the gap grew wider. Federalism was anathema to British political thought along with those concomitants: a written document and a constitutional court.
There is so much more to commemorate than the arrival of the British gaolers and their hapless prisoners. But we have to wonder how many of our current generation of leaders know much about Australian history. Their obsessive concentration on Cook, the First Fleet and the Australian involvement in Britain’s wars suggests Australia’s endogenous achievements lie in the deep shadows of their post-Imperial deference. The Americans and many other nations commemorate national days which mark the achievement of independence from the various Imperial overlords. Australia is different. The determination to persist with 26 January is a definitive statement. It is our Declaration of Dependence.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.