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Ignore Joyce and Roberts – talk to the reasonable people that have not been persuaded

​Based on the size of the protests and the media commentary, it appears that momentum is building to change the date of Australia Day. Not to cancel Australia Day and deny the country a day of national pride and celebration (despite what some extreme right perspectives would have you believe), just to move it to a day that is more inclusive and sensitive towards the first Australians. On some occasions, social change can be government-led, when we are governed by statesmen of vision and integrity (don’t laugh – it has happened, just rarely under a Liberal government). However Australia at this time is not governed by such people so it will be up to the people to lead the government. For this reason, it is important that the Change the Date campaign works hard to garner as much support as possible.

But political movements will often garner a political response (I know that change for change’s sake isn’t always good, but just for a moment imagine a blissful world without conservatives) and just as interesting as the protests and articles in favour of changing the date, were the responses and arguments against change. Because it is these arguments and concerns that must be answered if you want to change people’s minds.

Barnaby Joyce looked a strong frontrunner to take out the award for most obnoxious response with his rant telling those people that didn’t want to celebrate Australia Day to crawl under a rock or something similar. But of course I had not counted on the political caricature that is Malcolm Roberts. Now I wouldn’t underestimate Roberts’ lack of class anymore, but even my high expectations of his ignorance were exceeded when he made his bizarre tirade about Labour Day, which must have been based on the following premises:
1) those who were protesting the date of Australia Day all vote Labor, I assume, and even more incredibly for a politician who one might expect to know a little about these kinds of things;
2) that Labour Day has anything to do with the ALP.

But aside from drawing attention to the fact that Joyce, Roberts and their ilk go straight to personal attacks and provide no credible reason for their position at all, I’m not going to focus on these type of response any further. Because there are many reasonable Australians who are still uncomfortable with changing the date and they just need to be persuaded, not berated. Indeed, while I was ambivalent towards the date previously, I have to admit that I have only really come around to the idea that the date should be changed in the past year. With that in mind, I thought I would consider what is it about the Change the Date campaign that many Australians are still resistant to and how the campaign might break down these obstacles to bring more of the community along with them.

It is not a debate about the legitimacy of Australia and the right to celebrate being Australian.

An interesting point about the language of this debate is that the specific pros and cons of changing the date are quite rarely spoken of. This debate could have a considerably different complexion if it stuck strictly to the merits of the proposition. Now I wholly accept that Indigenous Australians have every right to protest and express anger over their past treatment and the ongoing issues facing their community. However I am not sure that it is effective in building community support for changing Australia Day (I’ll emphasis again that I realise many activists are protesting more than just a change of date but this article is focused specifically on this campaign). Indigenous affairs is after all much too big an issue to cover as whole with any detail in a single article.

Why do I say it doesn’t help? Because it is very confrontational and aggressive. The movement does not need to demonstrate the depth of its anger to make its point. It has a strong argument that could convince a lot of people as long as it is delivered carefully. I have written previously that I believe the best way to change someone’s perspective is through dispassionate engagement that shows you respect them enough that they don’t need to feel defensive and can think more clearly about what you are saying.

People whose ancestry does not go back to settlement times do not feel a guilt or responsibility for what happened at that time, but many of them have considerable pride and love for their country. Attacking Australian symbols such as the flag or the anthem- whether or not you think they are anachronistic – will generate hostility from some people who might otherwise not be difficult to convince (I fully expect to draw some criticism for this statement but if I was just going to write what I thought people wanted to read, I may as well write for Rupert Murdoch. It also allows scope for those who strongly oppose a change to push the narrative that this is just the start and that if we allow a change of date, we are committing to an endless series of placatory measures with increasing impact on our Australian identity (I will explain later that I don’t think much of this argument, but it can be persuasive to some if we give it the right preconditions).

If newer Australians feel no responsibility for the actions of the first settlers, they also can’t have a strong historical attachment for the date, January 26. I would suggest that if you were to dispassionately ask the question of whether someone has any objections to changing the date of Australia Day so that more Australians can feel included in the celebration, a considerable number might be forced to agree. In those terms it is difficult for someone with much empathy to actually disagree. Certainly, few would raise strong objections (the most likely of which I will consider next) that you couldn’t perhaps talk through and demonstrate were unfounded.

Aren’t there bigger issues?

Some people also are held up by the fact that this is only a symbolic change. But the thing about symbols is they mean different things to different people. There are many symbolic dates (Christmas, Remembrance Day, etc) that many of the same people would say are very important; so it is imperative we are not so egocentric as to dismiss symbolism just because we can’t personally see the importance to others.

And yes there are bigger issues facing Indigenous Australians, so why has this captured my interest so much? The answer is simple. This is an easy way to make a lot of people more comfortable with their national identity at a cost to no one. Why aren’t I worried about incarceration and mortality rates? I am, but they are very complicated problems that I don’t have a quick answer for. But isn’t it possible to work towards two things at once? If you have the answer to solving Indigenous education, health or incarceration rates, I’ll probably support that too, but this is not an argument against changing the date. The two are not mutually exclusive. That is a false choice that a lot of people fall for. I have to admit that in 2016, I kind of bought into the same false choice, which was part of the reason I wrote then that I didn’t agree with changing the date.

I noticed comments from several Indigenous commentators have come out against the Change the Date protests making this exact false choice. Does this invalidate the desire of many to change the date? Of course not- that would be like suggesting a feminist argument to be invalidated when another woman disagrees with them, without considering the argument itself. Certainly they are as qualified (if not more) to speak on the matter as anyone, but right to speak does not replace the need for a logical argument. And as I said earlier, the false choice between caring about inequality and wanting to change the date is not actually an argument in itself. It is a comment that more effort needs to be spent on other areas of Indigenous affairs.

In actual fact, very few arguments have been raised that actually explain why moving the date would be a bad idea. Sure, Barnaby Joyce can rant about whatever he wants, but no one has actually said why changing the date of Australia Day would be a bad thing, without resorting to lazy jingoism and calling people who disagree ‘unaustralian.’

If we change the date what will we have to change next?

Changing the date of Australia Day will not magically fix the present issues of inequality facing Indigenous Australians. Just last month, the United Nations special rapporteur described the health conditions of some Indigenous communities as worse than in the third world. Neither will changing the date be the end of protest and demonstration over aboriginal rights. Many Indigenous Australians will continue to harbour anger over their historical treatment for generations to come.

In light of this, a concern I imagine many Australians may have is where does it end? Will the next campaign focus on a formal treaty, changing the national anthem, the flag or something more controversial? Whether or not you believe these further measures are also appropriate (and I acknowledge that to many they are), it would be tangential of me to go into detail here. But in grouping all of these changes together as an all-or-nothing proposition, we are succumbing to some rhetorical sleight of hand known as a slippery slope argument.

I have been pretty disdainful of these types of arguments in the past because they are lazy and oblique. They treat tenuous unsubstantiated premises as factual. There is no logically compelling reason that changing the date commits you or the country to anything other than changing the date. Each proposal will be judged on its merits at the time. Changing the date of Australia Day is appropriate now. Perhaps in the future community sentiment will be such that we will seriously consider further changes out of respect to the first Australians. If you have arguments for why we shouldn’t change the anthem or the flag, save them for when they are relevant. For now give me a reason not to change the date itself.

There will always be some who stand against the tide of history (hello conservatives, that is pretty much always you), but the more time goes on the lonelier they will get on this issue. If you take an analytical approach to the arguments for and against moving the date, it is pretty hard to refute. There is actually remarkably little in the way of compelling argument against changing the date. However if people are upset or unhappy with the campaign itself, it becomes an emotional not an analytical decision and is easier for them to be persuaded by the right wing hyperbole around the issue.



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  1. bobrafto

    one wonders how simpletons get elected and to answer my own wonderment ‘by simpleton voters’.

  2. king1394

    I think Malcolm Roberts might be on to something. We already have Labour Day (I know, it’s a different celebration from what he thinks), and Bank Holiday (for CEOs, professional offices) and various Union Picnic Days. We could have Liberal Day, National Day, Family First Day (would Christmas double for this?), One Nation Day, Greens Day (not to be confused with the rock band), Shooting Fishing and Recreations of all sorts Day, Extreme leftwing parties’ day, Extreme rightwing parties’ Day, Independents’ Day (not to be confused with the USA’s holiday. We ought to add in the Rum Rebellion Day (January 26) and why not also have Thanksgiving Day for good luck? Most of these days could occur on the first day of each month as we move through the year, and we would have to trust that only the appropriate party and their supporters would actually take the designated day off. Swinging voters would of course take all the holidays.

  3. Cliff

    Go back to what it was originally. That is a long weekend on the last weekend in January.

  4. Ricardo29

    I agree that there seems to be a groundswell for change and there are a number of dates that offer alternatives without the negative connotations of January 26th. I didnt hear Roberts but since I have no respect for him, i ignore him. Barnaby on the other hand is just a conservative shellback and is best ignored.

  5. jimhaz

    After looking at Wiki, it is clear to me that the date will not be changed within the next decade and perhaps never.

    My initial thoughts would be to take a completely different tack. Leave Australia Day as it is, but instead seek to have the Bank Holiday removed and replaced with Aboriginal Respect Day, as a national public holiday.

    By what right should Banks and Financial Institutions ONLY receive a PUBLIC holiday. None, surely.

    I’d package by appealing to the supposed christianity of Christians. Work with Get Up or some mob with ads containing aboriginal people asking for a Christmas present from Australian politicians.

    I’m imaging an ad, starting in late Oct or Nov, that goes something like this.

    Scene: While an aboriginal person – maybe someone like a miner working or a grandfatherly elder – makes the comments below, politicians names and bank names are displayed flowing semi-opaguely across the screen.

    Australia Day is your celebration, held on land taken from my ancestors, so for many of us it is a day of sorrow.

    Why do you show special respect to money lenders, in giving them a public day of recognition, yet not respect this lands original people?

    Is that a fair go or UnAustralian?

    Give us our day. Appreciate us more than the dollar. Our land provides your very existence.

    Together, lets dump the elitist Bank Holiday and make Aboriginal Respect Day a day we can all appreciate. A day we can grow recognition, unity, understanding and respect.

    It can be your Christmas gift to us.

    Cut then to a sequence of different priests, each saying one word in sequence with aboriginal people.

    “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Matthew 7:12”

    Perhaps the funding appeal could be doubled if it ended with…..

    ..and so it goes to for those long held in your refugee prisons.

    Why are you so unkind?

    Gosh, this post is actually some compassionate positiveness from me.
    What was I thinking 🙂

    It was actually rather nice not to be concentrating on Trump’s bullying.

  6. John Kelly

    Why not just replace the Queen’s Birthday holiday with Australia Day. It’s in May. Weather is okay. Footy is up and running. What’s not to like?

  7. Harquebus

    Another argument about deck chairs while the iceberg looms ever larger.

  8. Roswell

    Harquebus, if you come to any post again and try to detail it with your “we’ll all be ruined … we need to talk about what I, and only I want us to talk about”, I will delete the comment. Why, as a moderator, should I sit back and let you ruin the experience on this site for every user?

  9. Harquebus

    It is my opinion that this issue is just a distraction. Why should I let this kind of thing happen and not say anything?
    I have had my say, kept it short and have no intention of hijacking this conversation.

  10. Keitha Granville

    Yep, the Monday after last weekend in January sounds great. That way it’s never attached to any date in particular. If it happens to fall on the 26th it will be coincedental and not to be worried about.
    Everyone’s happy.

  11. The AIM Network

    Harquebus, we understand your passion and appreciate that what you stand for is vitally important, but imagine, if you will, what it would be like if everybody who comments on this site rushes in to every post and said what they wanted the post to be about. We’re guessing that you would not like it. You would not think that what’s important to them is not of any importance to you.

    Now put yourself in their shoes.

  12. Deanna Jones

    When has there ever been any significant social change achieved without anger and aggression? Anger is a rational response to oppression. First Nations peoples are still struggling with the inter generational trauma from being violently dispossessed of their land and culture, from attempts of genocide. Yet every year white people celebrate this right in their faces. Changing the date will be far more than merely ‘symbolic’ for people who endure this ‘celebration’ year after year. We have to stop it. In my opinion, this country, rather than having too much anger about these things, is nowhere near angry enough.

    Harquebus why always so rude?

  13. Harquebus

    Would the moderator who deleted my last comment please own up.
    Thanks in advance.

    Deanna Jones
    There was nothing rude about it. It was my honest opinion and thanks for the example that would have been apparent if, my last comment was visible.


  14. king1394

    Again one commenter wishes to have nothing said about any issue that he/she deems to be trivial. I find the trivia to be very important. The pig-headed determination that Australia Day must firstly exist as the foremost celebration of our national being, and secondly that there is only one possible date and that is the one on which Australia Day has been celebrated since, um, 1994, also shines a light on the barriers we face as a nation in getting anything important achieved.

    Problems such as the date of Australia Day and the legality of certain marital relationships could be solved in a moment with political will. They are kept going by the desire of the people in power to keep the populace distracted and confused, and therefore unable to turn their attention to the main game.

    I see no answer other than to work to clear away the distractions. Unfortunately nothing can be done to force people to consider the deep and meaningful matters that will change the world if they don’t want to know

  15. win jeavons

    Perhaps we could have Australia Day in July or August? I can’t recall any national holidays in those months, and we could safely enjoy BBQs as there would be no risk of total fire bans , at least till even winters are too hot, as in Oklahoma recently, and similarly fireworks should present minimal risk. Any teacher will tell you that they REALLY need a day off about then. Best of all there is a lot of wattle in bloom then !

  16. gavin couzens

    Credits due would be nice ,change of attitude would be better,,,change of date don”t matter,Aboriginal elder”Me”

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