MICHAEL ALPERS is the Fremantle-based scientist who came within a whisker of winning a Nobel Prize for his work with the mysterious disease Kuru in the New Guinea highlands (the gong went to a research partner). With debate on Australia Day continuing, he argues in this week’s THINKING ALLOWED that we don’t need much of a change—just one day.
AUSTRALIA Day on January 25 commemorates the last day of undisputed Aboriginal sovereignty over the whole Australian continent after tens of thousands of years, and the day marking the safe arrival by boat of the first of many newcomers who came to live and settle on this land.
We contemporary Australians of both ancient and modern cultures, in pausing to remember these significant but conflicting events, celebrate the diversity we have achieved since 1788, with contributions by people from around the world. We wonder at the extent and richness of our natural heritage, from sunrise to sunset over the sea and from Torres Strait to Tasmania.
We acknowledge the pioneering struggles, tragic injustices and misunderstandings of our shared historical past, as well as many notable achievements, and commit ourselves to care for our bountiful country and its inhabitants, in harmony and with respect for all Australians.
The writing is on the wall for Australia Day as we know it. We are clearly on a trajectory for change and can only hope that through bold leadership an appropriate change will be made without a wasteful and prolonged process.
From diverse sources our national history runs in two streams and though the narratives are distinct we are capable of reconciling them. Therefore the day chosen needs to be inclusive, not divisive, and historically relevant. I suggest that the date be changed to January 25, which will have little effect on the national calendar.
A prior question is whether we need to celebrate a national day. This comes out particularly in some of the debates about the current Australia Day, and anger about that can cloud the wider issues. Without being nationalistic or xenophobic all Australians have good reason to be proud of our extraordinary country.
We are blessed with a rich, beautiful and vast expanse of land and sea of untold diversity.
If we agree then that we should celebrate Australia Day, when should it be? The day chosen should be commemorative and convenient and should unite the community. This rules out many suggestions of days that apply specifically to particular segments of the Australian community.
I think that most Australians would vote for Australia to be a Republic if given the chance to consider that simple question in a referendum that was not cynically designed to fail, as was our previous one. There is a strong case for the significance of Australia’s First Peoples to be recognized in the national Constitution.
The Day should, in my view, be more relevant to the people than to the colonial or any subsequent political power and authority. This is consistent with our most sacred national day, Anzac Day, which celebrates the courage, resilience and sacrifice – and the characteristic lack of deference to military authority – of Australians in a failed political and military enterprise.
The choice of January 25 makes a great match to Anzac Day. It commemorates an important day – in a negative sense – in Aboriginal Australian history and the extraordinary history that lies behind it.
It commemorates the safety of the new arrivals, there as pawns in a geopolitical game, but unequivocally the new settlers, whose descendants, together with the many subsequent waves of newcomers and their descendants, now constitute the bulk of the Australian people.
Aboriginal people have occupied this continent for some 65,000 years after their emergence from Africa and migration south from Asia.
The exact time is not known; its estimate changes with new scientific information and different interpretations and in any case will vary for different groups and places. What is certain and unequivocal is that this period is many tens of thousands of years, a span of time that no other human group can contemplate in their history.
This fact should be burnt into the consciousness of every Australian – not merely something that one learns about in school – and be an integral part of our national pride.
Celebrating Australia Day on January 25, the last day of undisputed Aboriginal sovereignty over the whole Australian continent after tens of thousands of years, will enable this.