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Analysis | Australia should rumble, not replace, its national holiday

Remark

What does a country do when it starts to get cold on its national holiday? Start relaxing a bit.

Australia Day, the January 26 commemoration of the arrival of the first British settlers in Sydney Cove in 1788, has been controversial almost since its inception. Three years after the celebrations were formalized in 1935, Aboriginal groups staged the first counter-demonstration, declaring the date a Day of Mourning to protest “the 150th anniversary of the white man’s conquest of our country”.

Those protests have continued ever since. The country’s bicentenary celebrations in 1988 – remembered by some as a pinnacle of uncomplicated, sun-soaked patriotism, when millions turned out to see a replica of the First Fleet sail into Sydney harbor – were boycotted by its own minister of Government Indigenous Affairs. More than 40,000 people protested for indigenous rights.

That controversy is now penetrating deep into the mainstream. The chief executive officer of the country’s largest telephone company, Telstra Group Ltd., has announced that she will work on the holiday this year, while the largest supermarket chain, Woolworths Group Ltd., said employees will be allowed to choose whether or not to take the day off. In the state of Victoria, where more people have attended ‘Invasion Day’ protests than official celebrations in recent years, the government has decided not to hold a memorial parade at all.

All this is welcome. Ordinary citizens show very little interest in the more ceremonial aspects of Australia Day. The decision by the department store Kmart, owned by Wesfarmers Ltd., to stop stocking Australia Day-themed items is not (in the words of a right-wing TV presenter) “complete left-wing lunacy”, but a acknowledgment that the populace already votes with their feet, and there is no money to be made in pandering to a dwindling mob of chauvinists. People are happy with a day off. Only the most politically engaged want a chance to revive old ideological battles.

Despite this, Australia’s holiday season manages to tackle culture war stress points with the unerring instinct of a Twitter feed. In my home state of New South Wales, only January 1 and (perhaps) December 26 are devoid of ideological baggage. The others celebrate, to varying degrees, colonialism (Australia Day); the military (Anzac Day); the monarchy (the king’s birthday); the trade union movement (Labour Day) and Christianity (Good Friday, Easter Monday and Christmas Day). Regardless of your political views, almost anyone can find a day on that list to be grumpy about.

That’s a strange outcome for a country that likes to see itself as easygoing and hedonistic. In its pursuit of national days that mean something, Australia has ended up with a string of holidays that offer opportunities to once again settle the same bitter disputes.

Proposals to fix this are welcome, but they should be wary of replicating the problems of the old system. Osmond Chiu, a researcher at Sydney-based think tank Per Capita, recently recommended adding Chinese New Year and Diwali to the holiday list, in recognition of Australia’s increasingly multicultural demographic. That has a lot to recommend. Still, it would be a better idea to learn one valuable lesson from the old colonial overlord and dismiss the meaning altogether.

In the UK, three of the eight days off have aggressively boring names: Early May Bank Holiday, Spring Bank Holiday and Summer Bank Holiday (Despite the name, you don’t have to work at a bank to get a day off.) Find all place on a Monday so that the nation can enjoy a collective long weekend. Japan follows a similar tradition, celebrating holidays to celebrate the ocean, mountains, vegetation, children and the elderly, in addition to a few more nationally themed festivals.

That seems like a more fruitful approach. For most citizens, the purpose of a holiday is not to raise the flag or an ideal of nation, but something approaching the opposite: to provide a moment of relief from the mundane cycle of work and responsibilities; catching up with friends and family; to banish all talk of politics. Late January in Australia is a great time for that, as the long school holidays are coming to an end, temperatures are reaching their annual peak and the Lunar New Year is just around the corner.

The result of the current wave of increasingly mainstream opposition to Australia Day is likely to be a government commission, an unread report, serious divisions over what should replace it and many angry pundits, before everyone half-heartedly returns to the same mark. holiday that we have had mixed feelings about since the 1930s. A better approach would be to get it over with quickly: stop official Australia Day commemorations. Give everyone an extra day off, on the last Friday before school resumes. Call it the late summer vacation. Invite your friends for a barbecue.

The holidays Australia ended up with were the product of a young nation seeking to establish its identity. As the country has grown more mature and diverse, they are increasingly viewed with wistful embarrassment or aggressive defensiveness. We all celebrate our birthdays less as we get older – and it shouldn’t be any different for a country’s birthdays.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• Former colonies should do more than just abolish the monarchy: David Fickling

• Anniversary celebrations will not save the UK consumer economy: Andrea Felsted

• By Presidents Day: Jonathan Bernstein

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on energy and resources. He previously worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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