Be warned. In recent years it has become the custom to spoil what would otherwise be an enjoyable Australia Day by putting on some sort of stunt to demand we change our national day, our flag or our constitution. Some extremists even threaten that they’ll burn the flag while these days there is now the sad possibility that some alien elements will commit a terrorist outrage.
In the meantime, it seems there is now some sort of unwritten requirement that whoever is anointed as the official Australian of the Year has to immediately go into the pulpit and speak out in support of one or other of these changes, especially to some republic, as well as some other personal campaign.
(By the way, as we’re not a communist country, why on earth are governments involved in the naming of some worthy as Australian of the Year? And why do taxpayers have to fund this exercise, which has sometimes resulted in the recipient charging thousands of dollars to speak at private functions? One year they invited an English worthy, Sir Michael Parkinson – a knight of the realm, mind you – for the ultimate in Australia Day stunts. This was to lecture us in the official Australia Day Address on why Australians should change our constitution to become some sort of politicians’ republic. Neither the British nor US government are involved in this nonsense and their taxpayers are certainly not called on to fund what should obviously be a private exercise. It’s surely about time we did the same. )
In a democracy, we’re free to debate all these issues provided this is done peacefully. But why do these people have to clutter our national day with their stunts? And if you want to go into the pros and cons of turning our crowned republic into some sort of as yet unknown politicians’ republic, these are set out in what is pretentiously called The Great Debate. This took place recently when that very energetic commentator and author, Peter FitzSimons, bravely came into the monarchist lion’s den only to be grievously mauled by moi – verbally of course. At least that was the opinion of the almost totally monarchist audience. This was all very fair and proper – that was assured by that distinguished judge, Ken Handley QC, who has sat on the NSW Court of Appeal and the Fijian Supreme Court.
Just to demonstrate how nonsensical these Australia Day stunts have become and how they are involving people who should know better, last year almost every state Premier and both territorial chief ministers actually signed an Australia Day ”Declaration of Desired Independence’’. It should have been called a ”Declaration of Political Ignorance”. You’d think that in this day and age, our leading politicians would know that we are already as fully independent as Canada, New Zealand and, at least since Brexit, the UK is. There is no need for our premiers and chief ministers to “desire” independence. Australia has long been independent.
The premiers and chief ministers continued to show their ignorance by declaring that they believe that we ought to have an Australian as head of state. Even the man who led the 1999 republican campaign, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and argued this has since publicly admitted what monarchists have long argued – the Governor-General is head of state. This was when he was a no-show during the last election campaign when the remains of Australian soldiers who died in Vietnam were finally brought home. He excused himself by saying that the Australian head of state, the Governor-General was there representing the Australian people and the Australian government.
The ignorance of these politicians recalls the occasion on radio a few years ago when a New South Wales minister for education was asked why we celebrate Australia Day. The minister had been defending the teaching of history in New South Wales schools in the light of a report which showed that three-quarters of school students in the relevant year had no idea what Australia Day was all about. The minister announced that the reason we celebrate Australia Day is that it’s the day on which the Australian colonies decided to federate into one nation. Little wonder that the students had difficulty in understanding what it was all about.
These stunts used to only clutter our oldest public holiday which has been celebrated every year since the settlement in 1788, the King’s or Queen’s Birthday. One year the stunt was a demand that the Queen “return” Tom Robert’s magnificent painting of the opening of our first federal parliament in Melbourne on 9 May 1901 by the future King George V. Fully restored, this now hangs in Parliament House in the foyer of the Main Committee Room. It’s a vast canvas, and you can clearly identify in the painting the future King and his wife, later Queen Mary, the governor-general, the six state governors, all the members and senators of the new Commonwealth parliament as well as various distinguished guests – in all about 250 people. Seeing it should be the highlight of any visit to Parliament House, Canberra.
Robert’s painting was funded by a private consortium and exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. The Commonwealth government then presented it to the King and it was put on display at St James Palace. In 1957 prime minister Robert Menzies asked the Queen if the planting could be put on display in Australia on a permanent loan from the Royal Collection. It’s been here ever since.
Persuading the Queen to ”return” a painting on permanent loan became the 2001 Queen’s Birthday stunt. Then someone asked the then Victorian premier, Steve Bracks, to write to the Queen demanding she “return” the painting. The extraordinary thing is that Bracks actually agreed to do this.
The Australian Financial Review published a letter about this on 26 June, illustrating it with a cartoon. This showed two royal corgis using their litter tray. The floor of the tray was covered with shredded paper and on a torn piece you could just make out these words under a signature: “Steve Bracks”. The letter (I should modestly admit it was from moi) pointed out that Steve Bracks’ letter to the Queen was as misguided (and as embarrassing) as if he had demanded she return our Crown land. The painting is obviously not her personal property. It’s owned by the Australian Crown in trust for the Australian people. That’s why it is hanging – permanently – in Parliament House for all to see.
I added that if anyone still didn’t understand that the Australian Crown is separate and independent from the British Crown, they should remember that a senator who was still a UK citizen lost her seat because she didn’t appreciate this. Under the constitution, anyone under allegiance to a foreign power cannot sit in parliament.
The lesson from these embarrassing examples is that senior politicians should be careful not to be dragged into these stunts. On these occasions the politicians were lucky that their foolishness wasn’t more exposed.
And is 26 January still appropriate?
And as for those who think 26 January is inappropriate as our national day, remember this. Our first governor, Arthur Phillip brought with the First Fleet four of the six pillars of our country – the English language, the basis of constitutional government – Philip was no dictator but had to govern according to very carefully devised instructions including civilised ways to deal with the indigenous people, our Judeo-Christian values and above all, the rule of law.
Some years ago Malcolm Turnbull made the serious error of saying that the penal colony was a British gulag. He should have looked at the first civil law case under the Charter of Justice handed down by the Judge Advocate a few months after the settlement. It’s available in the law reports. This resulted in a substantial award In favour of two convicts against a ship captain.
You just have to ask yourself whether a prisoner in a Soviet Gulag or Nazi concentration camp could have brought a ship’s captain before a court and be awarded substantial damages to understand how Philip brought the rule of law to Australia the moment he set foot on Australian soil.
Within an extraordinarily short period of time, and before the Eureka Stockade, the British agreed to grant to the colonies what is clearly the fifth pillar of our nation, self-government under the Westminster system. Federation is the sixth pillar of our Australian nation – and it’s something we achieved ourselves with the full blessing of the British who gave it legal effect through the Imperial Parliament.
It sometimes argued that 26 January is really the day of an invasion, which damaged the indigenous people. It wasn’t an invasion, and a perusal of the Royal Instructions to Phillip will demonstrate that the intention was to help and not to harm the original inhabitants.
Indigenous women might have a different view to some of the men as to the benefits of settlement. You just have to read the pleadings of three leading indigenous women for the ending of violence in the indigenous communities delivered on 17 November last year to the National Press Club.
In any event, 26 January has been chosen as our national day. There are a number of other significant days in the calendar, but for a birthday 26 January is the most appropriate. We can’t keep chopping and changing between 26 January and the many other possible dates.
There are at least ten principal contenders: the date the Constitution passed through the British Parliament, that is the date of Royal Assent to the Constitution Act, 1901; the Royal Proclamation Uniting The People of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, and Western Australia in a Federal Commonwealth by Queen Victoria after she was satisfied that the people Western Australia wished to join the Commonwealth; the date specified by the Queen in that Proclamation for the Commonwealth to come into existence, 1 January 1901; any of the principal contenders for the date of our independence – the Balfour Declaration, 1924; the Statute of Westminster 1931; the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942; the Royal Style and Titles Act, 1953 creating the title of Queen of Australia, the Royal Style and Titles Act, 1973 removing any reference to the Queen of the United Kingdom in the previous title; the Constitutional Alteration ( Aboriginals) Act, 1967 approved in the referendum of that year or the Australia Act of 1986 under which the British Parliament abandoned any legislative power in relation to Australia notwithstanding that this was only exercised at our request.
Obviously, there could be a never-ending debate as to when we should celebrate our national day. In my ever-humble opinion, my dear elites, that day very clearly and obviously is 26th of January.
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