What is Australia?

January 26: Australia day, invasion day? Should we shift our national day?

Canberra, January 26

There is no shortage of opinion, informed and uninformed.

A group of academics at Deakin University has surveyed 5000 Australians on their responses to the statement “We should not celebrate Australia Day on 26 January”, and their findings,  published in The Conversationshow that 60 percent of Australians want to keep Australia Day on January 26, but those under 35 disagree. Also men are more likely than women to want the date kept at January 26.

The age gradient they identify is quite strong: it is therefore probable that in time a majority will want to see Australia Day shifted. (Perhaps it could be the date when we finally decide to have our own head of state rather than sharing one with one of Europe’s offshore islands.)

They also find a clear majority (with only a slight age gradient) agreeing that “Australian schools should teach students more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history”.

Crispin Hull points out that what happened on January 26, 1788, had nothing to do with establishing a nation. “It was not a nation-founding moment. It was the declaration of the land known as New South Wales as a colony – a place for white people from Britain to settle and place their convicts.” “Patriots” depriving the rest of a national day. The nation was to come into existence 112 years later.

Stan Grant takes the opportunity to write about the whole question of “national identity”: On Australia Day, how do we define our national identity? Or is the exercise too dangerous? We don’t need a “national identity” he writes:

A shared sense of citizenship is crucial to a functioning democracy but the prevalence of a debilitating, censorious, tribal identity politics is the enemy of a shared citizenship. It has proved a cancer on democracy.

We can see the worst manifestations of national identities in Xi’s China, in Putin’s Russia, in Orbán’s Turkey, in Modi’s India, and occasionally in our own country when politicians wrap themselves in the flag. We don’t have to define a national identity, however. Rather:

We negotiate our belonging — who we are as a people — every day. We do it by living alongside each other, by working, loving and laughing together. We do it on the sports field and in the classroom.

We do it by challenging each other, by protest, by voting, by discussion and debate. We do it by sharing.

How to have an Australian head of state

A weird feature of our country is that the most prestigious position – head of state – is reserved for the family of an English aristocracy.

0n Late Night Live Phillip Adams interviewed three advocates for change who are at one in what they want (they describe themselves as “minimalists”), but who differ in their judgement about how to achieve the necessary constitutional amendment, which would have to overcome the hurdle of gaining support from a majority of voters in a majority of states.

The advocates are Peter FitzSimons, chair of the Australian Republic Movement, Bob Carr, former Foreign Minister and former Premier of New South Wales, and Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Sydney.

The main argument is about what model would get the support of Australian voters. Opinion polling, as well as the defeat of the 1999 model that would have involved parliament appointing the head of state, has convinced FitzSimons and his colleagues in the ARM that the process has to involve Australians casting a vote. (The results of polls are on Page 4 of the ARM’s model, showing strongest support for a popular vote.) FitzSimons explained a nomination process that would limit the number of people to be nominated (a maximum of 11), while giving some protection against a populist nomination. The position should have no more claim to power than that of our present governor-general.

Carr made the strong point that once someone is elected, he or she achieves a certain degree of political legitimacy simply by virtue of having been voted to office, and could, de facto, assume powers undermining the authority of the elected prime minister. As Twomey said, even if Australians don’t want a politician as head of state, the very act of election makes one a politician. Twomey’s concern was to find ways to make any process involving an election as non-politicized as possible.

The three advocates have their disagreements, but they are about means, rather than ends, and they have respect for one another. There is no risk that the ARM will tear itself apart.

But is there a risk that they don’t see the urgency of having an Australian head of state, because the current arrangements have been exploited in ways that do not serve the national interest? Australians do not want to see the American model in which the head of government and the head of state is the same person, but in sidelining the governor-general and taking on ceremonial roles, Morrison has made himself a US-style president – all he needs to complete the transition is to adopt Hail to the Chief as his personal fanfare.

Another substantial problem is that the monarchists’ claim that the present situation, where the head of state is a non-politicized monarch disinterested in Australian matters, protects us against politicization, is plainly wrong. The Queen of England wisely and properly refrains from involvement in Australian politics. But British politicians use Australia’s historical relationship with Britain, symbolized by the position of the Queen of England as a shared head of state, as a means to pursue British interests to the detriment of Australia, manifest most recently in the AUKUS deal. Our anglophile politicians need to be reminded that Britain is just another power, neither friendly nor hostile to Australia, that will pursue its own interests.