Each month we speak to Olympian, gold medallist, and former Senator Nova Peris about topics important to her and important to mob.
Nova Peris sat down with NIT to talk about ‘changing the date’ – “March three sounds right to me – Our Independence Day!”
Every summer, as 26 January draws closer, the chorus for changing the date of Australia Day grows louder.
And while I am heartened that more and more of my fellow Australians are taking up the fight for establishing a new and unified date to recognise all citizens who help to make our country one of the most multicultural and welcoming nations on earth, every year the debate rages strong for a few weeks but then, sadly, gets forgotten until January rolls around again the following summer.
But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t forget. We can’t. We won’t. And nor should you.
Much has been debated on the subject of Australia Day, and I for one—as a descendant of the Stolen Generations—have long been a strong advocate for changing the date to a more appropriate day for all, owing to the atrocities inflicted upon my people when Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet, planted his British flag on sovereign Dharawal land that Saturday, 26 January in 1788.
For Aboriginal people, this date was, and will always remain, a day of invasion and the commencement of mass murders and genocide; a day when some 60,000 years of occupation was forcibly taken away from us, often by brutal and unimaginable means.
The trauma of this continues to haunt us today. Each year, on 26 January, we are reminded of an event that drastically altered the course of the oldest surviving race of people on earth, in a way it hadn’t done so for thousands of years prior to 1788.
How, then, can we ever feel part of a unified Australia, when the worst day in our people’s history is, we are told year on year, the only date worthy of being celebrated as Australia’s national day?
Surely, agreeing on a new date that unites us as one people is a discussion that should interest everyone who calls Australia home.
It may surprise you to know that the first time an “Australia Day” was acknowledged nationally was not until 30 July 1915, arranged as a means of raising funds for soldiers representing their country—in duty to the Empire, of course!—during the First World War.
The following year, an Australia Day committee chose 28 July to commemorate the occasion.
Prior to 1888, only New South Wales celebrated what they called “Anniversary Day” on the 26th January, with other states each having their own different day of celebration.
It wasn’t until 1935 when each State and Territory adopted 26 January as a day to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet; although some still referred to it as “Anniversary Day” or “Foundation Day”.
Eleven years later, in 1946, the Commonwealth and State governments officially agreed to unify 26 January as the national day of celebration.
By this time, Aboriginal leaders, in 1938, had come together to adopt a “Day of Mourning” for 26 January, after decades of struggle to have their voices heard on the subject of better rights for Aboriginal people and to suggest a more suitable date for all Australians to celebrate as one nation.
While, certainly, significant progress has been made since the 1930s—the 1967 referendum and the eradication of the White Australia Policy among them—clearly, some discussions remain unresolved.
We call it for what it is. The day of arrival, of de-colonisation on 26 January, was the antithesis of unification.
We already had a colony and societal system prior to 1788; we had a place of belonging, a respect for the land and everyone who inhabited it. Yet, from 26 January 1788 we lost all that, and we’ve been fighting ever since to regain our status as equal citizens in our own country.
We can’t move forward as a nation until we reconcile the past, and part of reconciling that past is knowing what you’re reconciling.
By changing the date of Australia Day to one that shows an acceptance for all, an understanding of everyone, and which has significance to the multicultural society of Australia in the 21st century, would go a long way to unifying our nation for the first time since 1788.
In 1979, the Commonwealth Government established a committee to make 26 January a “truly national and Australia-wide” celebration, which, as had always been the case, clearly didn’t consider the perspective of the country’s oldest inhabitants—its First Nations People.
In the late 1980s, having increasingly struggled to have our message heard, we began publicly naming 26 January “Invasion Day”; many, today, also see the date as our “Survival Day”.
In 1994—yes, just 24 years ago!—Australia Day officially became a public holiday for all States and Territories for the first time.
Don’t get me wrong, I, like so many of you, love coming together with friends and family over a long weekend for a ‘barbie’ and a competitive game of backyard cricket. We don’t want to lose that opportunity for spending valuable time together, particularly given the current climate.
Which is why, to me, the appropriate date for celebrating Australia Day, embracing all that is great about our country, is an obvious one.
On Monday, 3 March 1986, a major—but long-overlooked—event occurred which removed decision-making from the UK Parliament and handed our governments the power to pass its own laws.
In effect, March 3 became our Independence Day. Our one true Australia Day. Google it, you will be amazed that you’ve never heard about it!
The Australia Act, signed by Queen Elizabeth alongside the late Prime Minister Bob Hawke in Canberra on March 3 1986, is “An Act to bring constitutional arrangements affecting the Commonwealth and the States into conformity with the status of the Commonwealth of Australia as a sovereign, independent and federal nation.”
Importantly, the Act proclaims that “a state would have power to repeal or amend such an existing UK law so far as it applied to the state.”
It staggers and disappoints me that my children—Jessica, Destiny and Jack—and my grandson Isaac, have never learned of the 1986 Australia Act in their schools. Surely, such a major event in the development, advancement and independence of our nation should be taught and celebrated from an early age.
We have the power, and have had that power for 36 years, to make change for the betterment of all Australians.
What better day, then, to celebrate Australia Day than on 3 March?
It takes a bold and compassionate leader to make decisions in the best interests of all their country’s citizens. Who, then, among our current leaders in Canberra, will take that bold initiative and consider moving Australia Day to the ideal date for celebrating our modern, inclusive, progressive society?
When I became the first Aboriginal woman elected to Federal Parliament in 2013, I was determined to speak up for what I believed, and to act as the voice of the unheard, all done with the ambition to create equality for each and every Australian, regardless of their background. I never took that responsibility lightly.
Our parliamentarians are elected to serve their people, to change with the times and act in the best interests of all citizens. To unify us and make us strive for the common cause.
The Australia Day debate isn’t going away. With more and more people joining the chorus for a change of date, it has to happen, sooner rather than later. Why wait?
We’ve had 36 years of power to make our own decisions for what’s best for our nation, some 234 years to acknowledge our First Nations People, and 60,000 years of remarkable history that deserves to be celebrated.
We can do this – we must do this.
Yes, March three sounds right to me. Our Independence Day!
By Nova Peris OAM OLY