Australian Economy

Australia Should Junk, Not Replace, Its National Holiday


What does a country do when it starts going cold on its national holiday? Start relaxing a little.

Australia Day, the Jan. 26 commemoration of the first British colonists’ arrival at Sydney Cove in 1788, has been contentious almost from its founding. Three years after celebrations were formalized in 1935, Aboriginal groups organized the first counter-demonstration, proclaiming the date a Day of Mourning to protest “the 150th anniversary of the white man’s seizure of our country.” 

Those protests have continued ever since. The country’s 1988 Bicentenary celebrations — remembered by some as a high point of uncomplicated, sun-kissed patriotism, when millions turned out to see a replica of the First Fleet sail into Sydney Harbour — was boycotted by the government’s own minister for Indigenous affairs. More than 40,000 people marched in protest for Indigenous rights.

That controversy is now pushing deep into the mainstream. The chief executive officer of the country’s largest phone company, Telstra Group Ltd., has announced that she will work on the public holiday this year, while the biggest supermarket chain, Woolworths Group Ltd., said workers are allowed to choose whether or not to take the day off. In Victoria state, where the numbers attending rallies protesting “Invasion Day” in recent years have rivaled those at official celebrations, the government has decided not to hold a commemorative parade at all.

All of this is welcome. Ordinary citizens show precious little interest in the more ceremonial aspects of Australia Day. The decision of Wesfarmers Ltd.-owned department store Kmart to stop stocking Australia Day-themed merchandise isn’t (in the words of one right-wing TV host) “complete lefty lunacy” but a recognition that the population is already voting with their feet, and there’s no money to be made from pandering to a dwindling crowd of jingoists. People are happy to have a day off. Only the most politically committed want to turn it into an opportunity to revive old ideological fights.

Despite this, Australia’s public holidays manage to home in on culture war stress points with the unerring instinct of a Twitter feed. In my home state of New South Wales, only Jan. 1 and (arguably) Dec. 26 are devoid of ideological baggage. The others, to varying extents, celebrate colonialism (Australia Day); the military (Anzac Day); the monarchy (the King’s birthday); the union movement (Labor Day) and Christianity (Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas Day). Regardless of your political views, almost everyone can find one day on that list to feel grumpy about.

That’s a strange outcome for a country that likes to think of itself as easygoing and hedonistic. In its striving for national days that mean something, Australia has ended up with a series of public holidays that are opportunities for rehashing 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 the Sydney-based think tank Per Capita, recently recommended adding Lunar New Year and Diwali to the list of public holidays, in recognition of Australia’s increasingly multicultural demographic makeup. That has much to recommend it. Still, a better idea would be to learn one worthwhile lesson from the old colonial overlord, and spurn significance altogether. 

In the UK, three of the eight days off go by aggressively bland names — Early May Bank Holiday, Spring Bank Holiday, and Summer Bank Holiday (despite the name, you don’t have to work in a bank to get the day off.) All occur on a Monday, so that the nation can enjoy a collective long weekend. Japan follows a similar tradition, taking holidays to celebrate the ocean, mountains, vegetation, children and the aged alongside a smattering of more national-themed festivals.

That seems a more fruitful approach. To most citizens, the point of a public holiday is not to rally round the flag or an ideal of nationhood, but something close to the opposite: to provide a moment of relief from the mundane cycle of work and responsibilities; to catch up with friends and family; to banish all talk of politics. Late January in Australia is a great time for that, with the long school summer holidays coming to their end, temperatures hitting their annual peak, and Lunar New Year close at hand.

The outcome of the current wave of increasingly mainstream opposition to Australia Day is likely to be a government commission, an unread report, earnest divisions about what to replace it with, and plenty of angry punditry, before everyone half-heartedly returns to marking the same holiday we’ve had mixed feelings about since the 1930s. A better approach would be to quickly get it over with: End the official Australia Day commemorations. Give everyone an extra day off, on the last Friday before school resumes. Call it the Late Summer Holiday. Invite your friends over for a barbecue.

The holidays Australia has ended up with were the product of a young nation wanting to establish its identity. As the country has matured and grown more diverse, they’re increasingly looked at with either wistful embarrassment or aggressive defensiveness. We all celebrate our birthdays less as we grow up — and it shouldn’t be any different for a nation’s anniversaries.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Former Colonies Should Do More Than Just Abolish the Monarchy: David Fickling

• Jubilee Parties Won’t Rescue the UK Consumer Economy: Andrea Felsted

• Against Presidents Day: Jonathan Bernstein

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

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