Push to shift Australia Day public holiday doesn’t quite add up

The push among professional elites to celebrate the Australia Day public holiday on another day as a gesture of solidarity with First Nations people has me scratching my head.

Melbourne University employees are pushing for the right to reject January 26 as a public holiday and take leave on a day of their choosing. Meanwhile, one of Victoria’s senior bureaucrats has urged staff to take advantage of a little-known public service rule that gives bureaucrats the right to substitute public holidays for other days.

Staff at Melbourne University are seeking the right to substitute the Australia Day public holiday for a different day of the year.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“For some, it’s a day celebrated with friends and family,” said Department of Families, Fairness and Housing secretary Sandy Pitcher, in a message to staff about Australia Day. “But for many, 26 January can be a difficult day, in particular for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australians who reflect on the invasion, associated violence and dispossession of Country.”

Pitcher encouraged staff to explore the possibilities of working on January 26 and taking an alternative leave day. She wants people to reflect on Australia’s past “a little deeper”.

Nothing I say here should be interpreted as criticising Pitcher’s competency in her role.

Commenting on the proposal, Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said bureaucrats should stick to their core business of repairing COVID-battered Victoria. And while I broadly agree, to be fair, “Fairness” is within Pitcher’s remit. High on any fairness agenda is compensating First Nations people for the intergenerational costs of colonisation and genocide.

Department of Families, Fairness and Housing secretary Sandy Pitcher.Credit:Simon Schluter

The problem is not the push for “deeper” reflection on Australia’s past, but the mechanism for doing so.

A spokesman for Premier Daniel Andrews said, “important conversations are happening across the country about how we recognise and celebrate our nation in ways that respect our First Nations peoples”.

“Conversation” is one of those words that’s been gutted of meaning through disingenuous overuse, but at least the Andrews government has prodded us into having a substantive one by establishing the Yoorrook Justice Commission through which we’re learning the full truth about atrocities inflicted on Indigenous people after the first governor of NSW, Arthur Phillip, planted a Union Jack in Sydney Cove in 1788 and declared British sovereignty over the land.

And that event is what Australia Day commemorates, for those who don’t know – which was me, for a shamefully long time. I assumed the day marked something colonial and ergo boring. This is an enduring prejudice if the dwindling number of students taking Australian History at VCE level is any guide.

Invasion Day protesters in Melbourne on January 26 last year.Credit:Justin McManus

Indigenous people don’t need the history lesson, of course. If they wish to take the public holiday on a date other than January 26, common decency demands our public institutions be accommodating.

Whether Indigenous people would see the fiddling of holiday calendars by the non-Indigenous as the gesture of solidarity it’s intended to be, I can’t say.

I can speak only of my own experience of Australia Day; the thickening pall hanging over it. Each year I dread its advance: “Invasion Day” protests, Pauline Hanson performing Pauline Hanson, citizenship ceremonies where politicians hold forth on “Australian values”, the relentless culture wars, the persistent undercurrent of shame and sorrow. Come January 26, I’m souring on the too-long summer, and its capacious opportunities for deep reflection.

I’d wager many people would prefer to drown out the day with work, and take the public holiday at a date of their choosing. Maybe reclaim Easter Tuesday, formerly a bank holiday until the Kennett government scrapped it in 1994.

How good’s that! Not only might people be gifted a day off at a time most convenient to them, not only do they manage to avoid January 26 with its undertow of guilt about past and present injustice, but they get to bask in the warm inner glow of a choice deemed politically virtuous.

Even though this alternative day off is still in lieu of January 26, that fateful day for First Nations people. Even though the campaign to “change the date” is yet to bear fruit.

“In the union movement we call it Invasion Day, so substituting the public holiday would recognise that it is a day of despair, of horror for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people,” said National Tertiary Education Union Victorian branch assistant secretary Sarah Roberts.

I had to laugh. Union officials might well refer to “Invasion Day”, but their blue-collar members are more likely to deck their cars with Australian flags. Sermonising in the royal we – “we call it Invasion Day” – is no substitute for the hard work of forging a consensus on reconciliation that allows space for healthy patriotism.

To this fraught national challenge the knowledge class offers up a privatised solution. Far from prompting “deep reflection”, the public holiday switch is an invitation to inane self-congratulation.

The most meaningful gesture of solidarity with Indigenous Australians would see people making a genuine sacrifice for the cause by ditching the holiday altogether. All in favour of depriving workers of a day off, say “aye”! Solidarity forever! (To be clear: the idea sucks.)

If people wish to take the Australia Day public holiday on a date other than January 26, no one should judge them for it. But if we see their decision as somehow morally superior, then I reckon we’re throwing the concept of “solidarity” into the dustbin of history.

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