By John Dickson
January 23, 2019
If we are going to retain the date of Australia Day, I want to suggest that we have to mark the day in a deliberate twofold manner, with lament and rejoicing on the same day. Suburban churches like mine have been trying out ways to do this, but there are secular alternatives.
Personally, I support changing the date. Given our history, if that’s what Indigenous people really want, it seems a small token of kindness to find a better day. But something could also be lost if we move away from January 26, away from any connection with the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788.
Indigenous Australians may no longer be structurally part of the national day. Australia Day could become a simple celebration of modern nationhood, with no particular historical link to Aboriginal heritage. By contrast, sticking with January 26 (but starting the day with lament) embeds in our national day a perpetual acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples.
It reminds us — like no other day on the calendar could — that this was Aboriginal land before Europeans tried to claim it, and that the process of colonisation which began that day was harmful to Indigenous Australians long before it was of any benefit. Retaining January 26 as a double commemoration would educate generations of future Australians about the need to temper — or at least precede — our national rejoicing with national sorrow.
Anyone who has attended a church service knows that churches are particularly good at this twofold approach to festivals. Think of the quiet awe of Good Friday (marking Jesus’ death) followed by the burst of triumph on Easter (marking Christ’s resurrection). In fact, traditional church services every Sunday combine lament and celebration, as the faithful seek God’s mercy for their wrongdoing, and then rejoice in song and prayer.
The logic is that we cannot truly celebrate life’s (and God’s) glories without acknowledging the “fallenness” of things. This makes it relatively natural for a church like mine to run a service on Australia Day morning that laments the hardships we have caused Indigenous Australians, and prays for their flourishing. Only after this can we turn in good conscience to celebrate the blessings that also flowed from January 26, 1788.
It is easy to imagine more “secular” forms of the lament-and-celebration. Shops could remain closed on Australia Day until 10am. Before that, local councils could hold ceremonies of remembrance, preferably with Indigenous representatives involved, but it would still work without them.
There might be readings about Indigenous hardship and hopes. (I like to read out Watkin Tench’s eyewitness account of “first contact” in 1788; it is both tender and condescending.) Perhaps we could convince poet Les Murray to come out of retirement and compose a national lament-celebration of the Indigenous-European experience. After it is read, we could have a minute’s silence. And only then would we dare to celebrate January 26.
A mature nation ought to be able to mourn and rejoice on the same day, recognising with shame what white settlement did to Indigenous peoples, and acknowledging with pride that we have also received and achieved much together.
The Reverend Dr John Dickson is an author and historian. He is the Rector of St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Roseville, and was the founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity.