A national day is an inclusive day – it must be positive for everybody

| December 1, 2017

Triple Js decision to move its annual Hottest 100 music program from Australia Day adds to the momentum that is building in favour of moving Australia’s national day.

Triple J markets the program as a musical celebration. In 2016 more than 2 million people cast Hottest 100 votes. The idea that for many people Australia Day is not a day of celebration encouraged 60% of the 65,000 respondents to an audience survey to support the change.

Moving the program to a day not marred by the history of Britain’s violent acquisition of political authority, land alienation, stolen generations, stolen wages, deaths in custody, poor health, hopelessly inadequate schooling and the considered exclusion of indigenous peoples from full democratic participation makes sense. This is not a day on which all people can celebrate; the Hottest 100s purpose cannot be achieved.

Another side of the argument is that it is not the public broadcaster’s role to ‘delegitimise’ Australia Day, as the Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, put it in asking the ABC Board to overturn the decision.

The Government’s argument seeks to revisit the ‘culture wars’ that was the Howard Government’s (1996-2007) context for debating relationships between history and contemporary indigenous claims for a more inclusive political order. For Triple J, responding to audience sentiment is more important, though ‘delegitimising’ Australia Day is certainly being read into its decision.

The size of the survey and the clear preference of the majority to change the day suggests that Fifield may be wrong to say that: ‘There are a relatively small number of people who have an issue with the fact that Australia Day is celebrated on January 26’.

Surveys have also suggested that the Government may have been at odds with public thinking in rejecting the indigenous proposal for a guaranteed voice to parliament. Further surveys tell us that young Australians accept multiculturalism. There is perhaps not the overwhelming public inclination to exclude that the Government imagines?

Triple J, in fact, made a commercial decision. However, its political consequence is to raise once again the question of the purpose of a national day? If it is simply to mark one historical event, the landing of the First Fleet, Australia Day can only be on 26 January. But 26 January can never include everybody.

If the purpose of the national day is an inclusive celebration, which is the point of Triple Js Hottest 100, then national identity needs to be defined. The question is not what does it mean to be an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent, but what does it mean to be an Australian of whatever national or ethnic origin?

Nationhood is not served by setting history aside. The arrival of the First Fleet is important. It needs to be marked. However, nationhood is not served by saying to some people ‘if this day is not for you, you are not really part of our nation. As an indigenous person you cannot be part of the nation that we celebrate. You become part of us only by accepting our conquest’.

A national day must have positive associations for everybody. This cannot occur by ‘changing the date’ alone. The new date needs meaning. It must be a symbol of substantive reconciliation. It is a politically and emotively charged question. If we do not recognise it as inevitably so, we cannot aspire to a meaningful and durable answer; we cannot aspire to nationhood.

The culture wars that Fifield has resurrected cannot affirm nationhood. They are a politics of division and exclusion. A politics that says to indigenous peoples that your histories don’t count; they are peripheral to the national story.

In other respects, the Australian story is a good one. There is much to remember and much to celebrate. There is more to Australia than division and exclusion; more than the boorish drunkenness and shallow flag-waving patriotism that distinguish Australia Day. There is the Hottest 100 and the broad cultural symbolism that it reflects. There are the post-war migrant communities who represent Australia’s once-proud capacity for inclusion. There are cultural and sporting icons – Cathy Freeman and her two flags at the Commonwealth Games in 1994; repeated at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 with its Opening Ceremony an exhibition of the possibilities for national identity.

As Australia Day 2018 approaches, Triple J has made an important contribution to discussions about what Australia is and what it means to be an Australian. It has proposed that those discussions can proceed only with reference to indigenous inclusion in Australian nationhood.

Momentum for ‘changing the date’ has been given. Arguments for keeping the date on 26 January will need to be stronger than those that the culture wars can provide.

The Triple J and other recent surveys suggest that ‘mainstream Australia’ is not quite as racist and exclusive as some people would like.