Everyone has an opinion on January 26 – not least of all, Australian prime ministers.
From Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott to current PM Scott Morrison and aspirant Anthony Albanese, the nation’s leaders used Tuesday to talk up their personal grab bags of burning issues; national unity and pride, the environment, “woke” and “cancel” culture and Indigenous recognition and calls to ‘change the date’.
The day began with Mr Morrison being the special guest at a flag-raising and citizenship ceremony on the banks of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin.
With Parliament House just across the water, and a navy helicopter zooming laps high above while trailing an enormous Australian flag (the usual flagpole in the process of being replaced), the PM praised essential workers for keeping on the lights during the pandemic, speaking of “shared fortunes” and recognising citizens for prevailing “in our own Australian way”.
“We do it on this day when the course of this land changed forever,” Mr Morrison said, a nod to calls to change the date of Australia’s national holiday.
“There is no escaping or cancelling this fact. For better and worse, it was the moment where the journey to our modern Australia began.”
The talk of “cancelling” came after the PM himself was chided by some for appearing to draw parallels between the suffering of Australia’s Indigenous peoples at the time of British settlement, and the “not particularly flash” experiences of convicts arriving on those ships.
Mr Morrison returned to a flavour of those comments on Tuesday, describing Australia as “25 million stories, all important, all unique and all to be respected”.
“Whether it is the story of our First Nation peoples’ strong, ancient and proud culture and their survival in the face of dispossession and colonisation,” he said.
“Or the forsaken souls who came as convicts, not to start a new world, but because they had been banished from the old one. Condemned and outcast by empire, they too overcame.”
Speaking after the ceremony, Mr Albanese said January 26 was “a very difficult day for First Nations peoples” who “didn’t have a Welcome to Country for the First Fleet”.
He has stopped short of calling for Australia Day to be changed, but reiterated a previous idea to stage a referendum – to be held on January 26 – on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians.
“We need to work out ways in which we avoid the divisive debate that has occurred every year around this time,” he said.
“What we could do is to consider having the date for the constitutional recognition of First Australians … on 26 January so that truly that was the date in which we could remember our history and our past but also acknowledge, of course, that it is a very significant day.”
The ghosts of prime ministers past had their say, too. A rare moment of unity was shared between two bitter rivals, as Tony Abbott congratulated Malcolm Turnbull on his Order of Australia recognition.
Thank you Tony!
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) January 25, 2021
Mr Turnbull, in various media interviews given to mark his award, had supported calls for a minute’s silence during January 26 events in respect of Australia’s Indigenous people; called out rising “protofascism” and “poisonous right-wing populist politics” in Australia; and claimed Mr Abbott’s short-lived revival of the knights and dames system as one of his “crazier” ideas.
“The most important thing about Australia’s history is truth-telling and being very clear-eyed about it,” Mr Turnbull said.
Mr Abbott also got a new title – distinguished fellow at the conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.
In a wide-ranging video address to mark his Australia Day appointment, the former PM took aim at “woke” athletes, “absurd” COVID restrictions, “virus hysteria and health despotism”, and even the idea of people having to form “orderly” queues.
📰 Tony Abbott will lead a new movement to defend and revive traditional Australian values, as a report to be published on Tuesday warns of a collapse of living standards over the past two decades. – @australian https://t.co/EIPqgSYCCo
— Institute of Public Affairs (@TheIPA) January 26, 2021
Mr Abbott said his IPA role would look at cultural issues “upstream of politics” to renew the country.
“That won’t come from deconstructing our history or our heroes. Or by imported fads of sports stars taking a knee,” he said.
“After a lost year it is time for a reset – but not a politically correct woke reset that seems to be brewing.”
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Kevin Rudd lent his voice to calls to change the date of Australia’s national holiday.
“It’s odd that our national day should commemorate the establishment of a British prison on the other side of the world, a decision that not a single Australian was involved in,” Mr Rudd wrote.
He suggested June 3 as an alternative, “the anniversary of the High Court decision in 1992” of the famous Mabo case that recognised Indigenous native title land rights and extinguished the ‘terra nullius’ legal status.