Updated: Apr 7, 2019
Being a nation without an independence day, Australia suffers a regular diet of self-reflection around this time every January. On the one hand you have the so-called black armband crowd who decry the celebration of “Australia Day” on the day the British invaded and dispossessed the First Peoples. On the other hand, you have the Anglo-centric cheer-squad that doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about and why everyone can’t just be white.
In the middle, most Australians simply love an excuse for a barbecue. And quite like living in a nation that doesn’t define itself either by an invasion or by race.
I have to say the Anglo-centric cheer-squad is on the wrong side of history. They had their day and the Australia they once tried to build in the image of Little England opted instead for egalitarianism, inclusion, immigration, reconciliation. Those are now mainstream.
So those unhappy about January 26, a date marking colonisation not nation, have a point.
Perhaps one day we will be able to have a day that represents all of us. But how to move this forward?
Well, just saying “change the date” doesn’t work. To what date should we change?
I hate to be a party pooper but it usually takes something really big to make a nation change something like its national day. Like a war or a revolution. Neither, thankfully, are likely in the foreseeable future.
There is another way to tackle big national issues. Deliberation. Yes, that’s right, a good, old fashioned confab.
In fact it’s the only way Australia has ever taken steps forward.
Think of the 1890s when Australia led the world in working conditions, giving votes and representation to women, inventing an elected upper house and secret voting. All of that happened not from civil conflict but from dedicated civic debate and political compromise. From a sense that Australia could build something new and unique. We were a democratic powerhouse and still are. Don’t call me Mr Morris, call me David, and don’t even think of getting in the back seat of a taxi.
Those formative years for Australia were in the dying days of an empire and the world was going through massive economic turmoil and reshaping. There was a lack of confidence in old institutions and a desire to build new ones. Our leaders showed the guts to engage the public in debating the big issues and conducted a series of referendums that created Australia out of six colonies.
Indeed, there are some parallels today and some big issues we need to talk about as a nation. The era we are entering may also see the relative decline of a modern day empire and we are already experiencing a dramatic economic shift to our part of the world that is changing everything. The growing Asian middle class is looking to Australia for goods and services and experiences like never before, which will change our economy fundamentally. We are building ever closer links to our region, but our part of the world risks facing destabilising forces as it changes. It’s time to build a stronger Australia to ensure we are ready to be in control of our destiny, and to find those things that will unite us rather than divide at a critical time in our history.
If we could only believe in ourselves and our brilliant prospects, the 2020s could be another period of Australia leading the world in reform. We all know we need it, our politics is broken, demagoguery and division on the rise. Today, in an online world, it could be so much easier to engage everyone in the conversation and to find the moderate centre and the compromises to bring us together. Let’s not wait until system failure. I reckon we take the bull by the horns and approach a series of overdue updates to our operating system.
How about this for starters:
1. A Constitution that begins with not only recognition of the First Australians, but preserves their cultures and languages forever as an integral part of Australia’s nationhood;
2. Further, the Constitution to vest all sovereignty in the Australian people and not an inherited monarch (reversing the concept of the crown ruling the people, to the government serving the people);
3. Create a Capricornian seventh state out the Northern Territory with a vision and plan for northern development to create a thriving link to growing Asia;
4. Reduce each state’s number of senators down to five and outlaw party lists, returning the Senate to a real house of review with Senators of authentic local standing rather than party hacks and extremists;
5. Take the opportunity of replacing the monarchy not with another elite individual but with a Council of Seven Elders, one outstanding individual selected by each State to perform the Head of State role for each State, with one rotating national Head of State who can only resolve a constitutional crisis with a majority of the seven. Again, outlaw party members and draw up criteria to ensure people of the highest standing, with a long history of community service and ability to represent the best of Australia at times of celebration and sorrow;
6. Leave the politics to the politicians. Ban them from ceremonial national events and confine them to debating and announcing policies. Ban them from having spin doctors and apparatchiks, requiring them to have transparent consultative processes – perhaps streamed online – listening to expert departmental advice and hearing from other stakeholders before making decisions;
7. Make governance fully transparent, with an Independent Commission Against Corruption, all government information freely available (apart from certified national security or personal privacy matters) and all party donations outlawed. Bypass the media and take the business of decision making straight to the people with online access for all.
I know, I know, all the naysayers and resisters of change will say you just can’t have all that change at once.
But they are wrong. When change comes, it comes all at once and all of the changes are connected. Just look at the 1960s or the 1980s.
Ever since republicans divided on models and lost the referendum in 1999, they have been saying “let’s just focus on having an Australian head of state.” How is that going?
Similarly the Recognise campaign has focused on just its message of recognition. Seems fair, but what was the point of that again?
NT statehood bubbles along as an idea but no one outside of the top end cares. Couldn’t it be the catalyst for a wholesale reform of the Senate?
We are all fed up with the political class but we are mis-directing our anger. If it wasn’t for the army of spin doctors who have turned politicians into empty music stands, and the culture of secrecy surrounding governance, we might be able to actually get more done with real representative deliberation and less political game playing.
All of these things are connected. They are about the nation, how we see ourselves, who we want to be, our self government and how we make wise decisions about our own people and our own future. Picking each issue off individually hasn’t worked. Australia is at its best when it is innovating, at its worst when it cowers with fear of a changing world. It’s time to think big. Then it will be Australia’s day.