Nothing else in the world, wrote Victor Hugo, is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
And there is no better barometer of an idea finding its moment than when the person who hears it or thinks of it cannot believe that nobody has ever thought of it before.
A senior political advisor once told me that her favourite description of any policy she worked on was “long overdue”. She knew then it had deep and wide community support.
And so it came to pass that my best mate and I were talking about Australia Day, because that is apparently all that happens on Australia Day these days: An endless circular debate about whether it should be a day at all.
Every year this takes place, and every year I and precious few others argue in vain that we should be talking instead about real and tangible Indigenous disadvantage and the disgraceful gap between First Nations peoples and the rest of us across almost every facet of life: education, employment, income, housing, violence, addiction and health – the very span of life itself.
And every year the day passes and the nation seems to forget about all of these things. The following month the annual Closing the Gap report is released on Sorry Day and it receives a fleeting obligatory mention. Invariably the gap hasn’t closed and the usual people make the usual promises to work harder and do better.
And so, to borrow a song lyric, nothing ever happens. The needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before.
Thus the great Australia Day debate results in two toxic outcomes: It further angers and divides the protagonists on either side of it and it distracts from – perhaps even masks – our true national shame of failing to confront the severe physical and economic disadvantage suffered by Indigenous people in this country.
Simply changing the date will clearly not solve these problems and may indeed make them worse. Poll after poll shows that fewer than a third of Australians support changing the date, around half want to keep it and the rest are ambivalent, and so any removal of it from the national calendar would upset more people than it pleased.
Moreover, and more importantly, there is the fear that it could create a false sense of complacency that these issues are now resolved. As with the National Apology, which I marched for and still support, it may mean a lot to some people but will do little or nothing to address disadvantage on the ground.
But it is clear that the debate is not going away and that instead of an occasion for togetherness and celebration Australia Day will always be tarnished by protest, a fusion of genuine grievance with fashionable outrage, to the point where even the Australian of the Year has now disowned the date.
This is both unfair – which is in strict violation of our national anthem – and unsustainable. It is unfair both to those truly hurt by the day and to those who are cast as racists or rednecks simply because they want to celebrate the country that they love and their good fortune to live in it. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the thousands of citizenship ceremonies where newcomers to this country pledge a grateful oath of allegiance to their new home.
And so what to do?
Well, said my mate, it’s simple. You don’t change the date at all. You keep January 26 as Australia Day and you add January 25 as First Nations Day.
“Yeah, I think I read that idea somewhere,” I said. “I like it.”
“Nah,” he replied. “I thought of it ages ago but never told anybody.”
He’s like that.
As we chatted away the simplicity and the elegance of the idea unfurled itself between us. There could be two Australia Days, side-by-side: One recognising the ancient heritage of the land and its Indigenous custodians, the next acknowledging the first wave of the millions of migrants who have made this place the most successful multicultural nation on Earth.
Both would be deep and rich causes for reflection and celebration for all Australians, with merely a shifting of emphasis between the old and the new.
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Indeed, perhaps pairing First Nations Day with First Fleet Day might even remind us that despite the many horrors and atrocities visited upon Indigenous people in the years and decades to come, the early days of the settlement began with great goodwill. That landing might become a symbol of all the future boats and planes that brought people of all races here for a new life.
But there was of course a catch. This perfect idea could never take hold because we were, as my mate succinctly pointed out, “two white boys”. It was hardly our place to decide what could salve the soul of Aboriginal Australia.
This cannot be our idea, I said. Someone must have thought of this first.
And so I trawled through the internet and eventually I found it. And if I have ever believed in God or Fate or even just good luck, I never believed in it more than at that very moment.
Someone had thought of it first. The first ever Aboriginal director of the Sydney Festival, Wesley Enoch, suggested the exact same thing in 2019 in an interview with an obscure lifestyle website.
Enoch’s original idea was for three days from January 25 to 27, echoing the great Noel Pearson’s notion that there are three key aspects to Australia: “Our ancient heritage, our British inheritance and our multicultural triumph.”
And it was on January 27 I called Wesley with the suggestion that perhaps January 26 could be an acknowledgment of both those last two aspects and that a January 25-26 Australia Day, First Nations and First Fleet, could be the ultimate symbolic reconciliation. To my profound joy he gave the idea – effectively his idea, and no doubt that of many others – his blessing.
Nobody owns an idea, he said.
There is also something poetic in the fact that this notion arose independently in the mind of my best friend, who broke his neck and is alive only thanks to the miracle of Australia’s world class public health system – a living example of our compassion and progress – and in the mind of the man who is the Indigenous cultural curator of Sydney after two cultures collided in Port Jackson more than two centuries ago.
We keep and hold dear January 26 as the day when the Australia most of us know began and we add to it the solemn power of the 60,000 years of history that came before. If that is not a perfect idea then I don’t know what is.
Now all that is left is to hope its time has come.