It is hard to know what the general public thinks. Everyone likes having a long party weekend at the end of summer, but national polling in the past few weeks has given mixed signals about whether January 26 has to be the day.
A poll for the left-of-centre Australia Institute found 37 per cent think the current date is offensive and 56 per cent of people are indifferent about the date so long as there is a national day of celebration.
The right-of-centre Institute of Public Affairs, however, found 75 per cent of people want to keep the date of January 26. A poll this week in The West Australian newspaper found that among young people in WA, the split is 50-50.
Some Indigenous people, including Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt, are reluctant to change the date because they say it is more important to focus on practical issues than this divisive culture war.
The Herald believes the date is problematic and divisive and it may well make sense to change it at some stage. Changing the date will be no more of a threat to Australia as a nation than when we stopped celebrating Empire Day in 1958.
But on the other hand, the Herald believes it is more important to see our Indigenous heritage recognised in the constitution. As we argued last year, once that has been done Australia Day can become both a celebration of modern Australia and a time to reflect on past injustices. We must use Australia Day and every other opportunity to promote this cause and improve living standards for Indigenous communities.
The score card of the past year has been mixed at best. The fires, for example, have destroyed bushland and sacred sites which are vital to Indigenous culture. The drought threatens the fishing grounds and water supplies of many Indigenous communities in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The federal government is due to release its 12th annual “closing the gap” report on the welfare of Indigenous Australians in a few weeks and, as in previous years, it is unlikely to show a dramatic improvement. Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a meeting with the Coalition of Indigenous Peak Bodies in Canberra and has promised a new approach based on listening to what they say. He must deliver.
He and Mr Wyatt have made slow progress on the crucial political issue of creating an Indigenous voice to Parliament as requested in the Uluru statement. The opportunity for a constitutional amendment acknowledging Indigenous Australians and entrenching that voice must not be allowed to slip away.
While Mr Wyatt has called for truth telling about Indigenous history, the past year has shown that those who do are all still the subject of reactionary and racist attack.
A brilliant film documentary last year reminded Australians of the hostility towards outspoken AFL footballer Adam Goodes but the attacks go on. Indigenous historian Bruce Pascoe has been the target of personal attacks for his groundbreaking book Dark Emu on the sophistication of the Indigenous agricultural economy before white settlement.
It is also important to talk about the strength and value of Indigenous culture. For example, many are hoping that the techniques of controlled burning used by Indigenous people as part of their farming practices before 1788 can provide lessons for modern Australia to deal with the risk of bushfires that comes from climate change.
As the debate about the date inevitably becomes part of
this Australia Day, let us use it as a chance to raise these issues. Modern Australia is a country we should be proud of. Acknowledging the past and moving forward together would only enhance that.
The Herald’s editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.
Since the Herald was first published in 1831, the editorial team has believed it important to express a considered view on the issues of the day for readers, always putting the public interest first. Elsewhere, we strive to cover a diversity of views without endorsing any of them.