I am writing this on 26 January, 2015. Australians worldwide celebrate this day as “Australia Day” – the official national day of Australia. Twelve months ago, in an article called “A day for all” (see 29 January, 2014), I wrote about the background to this day and how it has evolved over time – for some, but not all, Australians.
In contemporary Australia, the Australia Day holiday is marked by the presentation of the “Australian of the Year” Award, announcement of the Australia Day Honours List and addresses from the Australian Governor-General and Prime Minister. With community festivals, concerts and citizenship ceremonies, the day is celebrated in large and small communities and cities around the nation. Australia Day has become the biggest annual civic event in Australia.
For some, Australia Day is less auspicious. There are many Indigenous Australians who refer to Australia Day as “Invasion Day” – describing an alternative Indigenous observance of the occasion. The day is marked by protests. A major feature of this protest has been the setting-up of a gathering place for Aboriginal people known as the Tent Embassy. This is located at a site called Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, adjacent to the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens.
Since January 1988, when the Tent Embassy was established, various Indigenous people of Australia have made a concerted effort to promote awareness among other Australians of their presence, their dispossession, their needs and their desire that there should be communication, reconciliation and co-operation over the land rights issues. The questions concerning the Indigenous Australians are still being asked – and still require answers. These answers must begin by the recognition of what the colonial invader has imposed on the Aboriginal people of Australia from that day of 26 January, 1788.
It is against the above background that this year’s national day announcement by the Australian PM, Tony Abbott, should be heard. A knighthood has been recommended for Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (the husband of the present British monarch, Elizabeth Windsor). Mr Abbott, who last year reintroduced the knighthood honour, said the Prince had lived a “long life of service and dedication”. As the loyal partner of the reigning British monarch, he surely hasn’t had much of a chance of lifestyle alternatives!
Opposition politicians described the decision as out-of-step with the times, indeed, the leader of the Opposition in the Australian Federal Parliament, Bill Shorten, said that it was “anachronistic” to give the top award to a British royal on Australia Day – adding: “Why would we give him our top Australian honour? He’s already got a lot of them.”
This situation is not without its irony. The recommendation for Philip Mountbatten to be awarded a knighthood requires to be ratified by the British monarch – Philip’s wife! Now that would be a topic for conversation over high tea. The whole system seems, to this observant expatriate eye, to be an outdated remnant of colonialism – of the type that has over time so devastated the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Australia is a parliamentary democracy that retains Britain’s monarch as its head of state. The country has a republican movement, but recent polls suggest enthusiasm for making Australia a republic has dwindled since the 1999 referendum on the issue, when 45% of voters were in favour. Most Australians at the time elected to maintain the status quo. The republican movement in Australia was split between those who wanted an elected president and those who preferred a parliamentary appointee.
In a recent speech, the Labour Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, argued that Australians should rally behind the idea of a republic. “Let us have the courage to ask ourselves if we measure up to more than just a grab-bag of cliches,” he said. “Let us declare that our head of state should be one of us.”
Opposition politicians have also criticised Mr Abbott’s decision and its timing. “As we try to reflect upon our nation… one of Australia’s highest honours goes to someone who’s not part of our community really,” the former premier of Western Australia, Geoff Gallop, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). “In effect this is the eccentricity of Tony Abbott’s views on our constitution coming through,” he was quoted as saying. “It certainly doesn’t reflect the view of the Australian people through a meritocratic process.”
The Australian Greens Party leader Christine Milne said: “There are plenty of wonderful people right here who are worthy of recognition. But this is Tony Abbott – stuck on what Australia was and failing to notice all that we are, or have any vision or pathway towards all that we can be.”
As Australians celebrate Australia Day – whether it be their “national” or “invasion” day, it would seem that the British nation might well take note of the words of Christine Milne. As a British citizen, and a republican, I believe that there are those in this country who are stuck on what the UK was and are failing to notice all that we are. In this election year we need to have a vision of what all, and not just some, can be.