It’s hard not to love a long weekend.
A good chance to recharge the batteries, spend time with friends and family, maybe even duck down to the coast. Public holidays are also meant to be a time to reflect and think why we’re enjoying that rare, hard earned day off together as a community.
We think of national sacrifice on ANZAC Day; Easter and Christmas holidays bring meaning for the religious or spiritual and are important family days. Labour Day reminds us of the struggles to deliver basic working conditions like the eight hour day, weekends and public holidays themselves. Even the humble Show Day, a mainstay for regional towns across Australia, brings with it a deep sense of community.
So in contrast to all those days of significance and meaning the Queen’s Birthday long weekend just sits there awkwardly on our national calendar, plonked between Easter and October. Short of needing a break I can’t think of too many people who’d have an answer to the question, “what does the Queen’s Birthday mean to you?”.
We don’t have a parade or a ceremony, we don’t even have a special cake. My parents at least had cracker night but, with my one exception during university while studying in Canberra, those days are long since gone. The Queen’s Birthday holiday feels like an anachronism just like the old backyard firecrackers.
It is an imported day without importance.
Last Wednesday there was a day of Australian significance that slipped past without much notice – the anniversary of the Mabo High Court decision.
It was the rarest of all legal judgements – one that spoke and engaged the nation. It sensed and drove a shift in our country’s mood. The decision changed our law and it changed how we saw ourselves. Twenty two years later it is still breathtaking to think of the lies, the falsehoods and the prejudices it knocked over in that ruling.
Legally, the court turned over the absurd and racist idea that before Captain Cook showed up the Australian continent sat uninhabited, and rejected totally that Aboriginal people were uncivilised. Morally, it challenged the ideas of ownership and connection to the land.
Our island continent has attracted and captivated countless millions of people. From the earliest of nomadic travellers to the newest wave of migrants, this continent has a way of getting under your skin. It’s the lucky and quietly achieving country with the distinct feeling of ‘home’.
Our First People, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, knew that bond first and still know it the deepest. They are the true custodians of this land and as Paul Keating said in his Redfern address, “it begins, I think, with that act of recognition”.
So it is remarkable that there is no national day where we recognise our First Peoples.
We have time to recognise a foreign monarch who has an increasingly tenuous connection to this country on a day that isn’t even her birthday. It stands then that we should have the space to recognise the people who have held the longest lasting connection with this land for tens of thousands of years.
Every Australian, regardless of their background and history, feels connected to this country. Yet we can’t ignore the simple fact that for the many that connection has come at the expense of the few.Dispossession did occur, bonds with the land were broken.
Marking a national day of Australia’s First People would be a signal of respect and recognition of those simple facts.
It would be a day to reflect on the history, contributions, achievements and cultures of our First Peoplesand the hundreds of nations and language groups across Australia. It would be a day to feel hopeful for our future and a day to focus on what needs to come next on the long road of reconciliation.
By no means would it be a silver bullet, nor does it trump any other policy priority for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We still need to close the gaps in education, health and life expectancy. We have to address incarceration levels, employment and standards of living. We still need to achieve constitutional recognition. We need a government that will protect, not demolish, the Racial Discrimination Act or rip half a billion from the federal budget. But I believe a national day of reflection and recognition is a worthwhile idea to progress.
Reflecting on the Mabo decision, Australian of the Year Mick Dodson said, “What we want is an acceptance of our history and what has happened to us, the first Australians. Now don’t deny the historical truth. If you can do that, you’ll free your heart.”
I think a national day of significance for all Australians to do just that is a fine ambition to have.