Australia Day was once small beer. Picnics, sandcastles and not even lamb on the barbecue.
Long ‘Anniversary Day’, it was mainly a Sydney event, only becoming a shared national public holiday in 1994. Until then it was on the nearest Monday, a ‘Happy Monday’ to go to the beach.
In 2018, it’s not so happy. Instead we have had a nasty political bullfight as different groups have used Australia Day as a weapon in battles between the Right and the politically correct.
Is there a peaceful solution to allow a celebration of national harmony instead?
I believe there is. Making Wattle Day, on the first of September, our new Australia Day.
We need a new date because three things have changed in recent years, even aside from those lamb commercials and this year’s abuse.
One, increased government money supporting the National Australia Day Council.
Two, ever since the biggest jamboree in Australian history, the 1988 Bicentennial, we know that indigenous Australians view January 26 as ‘Survival Day’ or ‘Invasion Day’.
The third is part of the story of the origins of the conflicts in recent weeks. In 2017, after several local councils recognised this contradiction, aggressive groups of young men, ersatz patriots, invaded council meetings and circulated video clips on social media.
Australia Day has become the national toy of competing ideologies, particularly extreme Right carpark-size groupings with social media profiles.
We have a lot to celebrate in Australia. Once our achievements in social progress led the world, including the right to vote, the eight-hour day, pensions, factory acts, and the basic wage for a family ‘in a civilised community’. Too often we forget them as we focus on contemporary economics and on Anzac historical memory.
We need a new national day for all Australians to celebrate our achievements, and to reflect on where we can improve: ending exploited franchise labour, banks’ criminal misconduct, the epidemic of depression and the road toll.
Saying ‘No’ to January 26 is not enough.
We still aren’t doing enough to help rebuild Aboriginal society, despite real gains in life expectancy. The fatal impact of invasions erodes an indigenous culture, which becomes hard to rebuild.
However, since national days are invented traditions, there is a way to take a positive step forward – Wattle Day on September 1.
Australians still love holidays, despite our contemporary long working hours. We particularly like holidays as a break from winter cold. Two months after the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June (Sandgropers excluded – they wait until October), many workers are crying out for a respected public holiday.
Canada chose a natural symbol, the red maple leaf, for a national flag suggesting unity.
Our character is captured in nature by the thousand species of wattle across the whole continent. In its bright yellowness, the wattle symbolises new growth as well as diversity, spring for us and for Australia.
We need to recognise Australian achievements as well as the indigenous experience, one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
We should celebrate our heroes – artists and scientists, sports stars and ordinary people who have made a good life – and reflect on what we can do better.
Those many warming wattles, as in the song about being Australian, “We are one but we are many”, evoke our unity in diversity.
Let’s celebrate together on a new Australia Day, Wattle Day, on the first of September.
Stephen Alomes, of RMIT University, is an historian of Australian nationalism, a seventh-generation Tasmanian and a painter of wattles.