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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