January 23

Australia Day


…the birthday of the nation…

As we approach Australia Day, 2008, it is timely to reflect on the birth of our nation, as Americans do at Thanksgiving and Independence Day.  

Let us hope that the report[i] in 2006 that the vast majority of teenagers are ignorant of the origins of Australia Day or Anzac Day was an aberration, and that the Minister of Education who thought Australia Day commemorated Federation has learned the error of her ways.

As Oscar Wilde said “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.”

…so, no more re-enactments?

That said, do I detect a wish to forget our beginnings?  

Recalling that twenty years ago, we marked our bicentenary with a re-enactment of the voyage of the First Fleet, culminating in its arrival in Sydney Harbour on Australia Day, a visit by Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Mike Steketee says in The Australian ( 19 January, 2008) that “we  would not contemplate including either of the first two in Australia Day events today.”

 Why? He says the occasion has taken on a broader significance.

That is true to an extent. As with a birthday, this is a celebration of the life of the nation, past, present and future.

But just as the end of Anzac Day was prophesised, and plans were once afoot to change our flag, Australians will come in increasing numbers to recognize that the inauspicious beginnings of the nation on 26 January, 1788 established the very pillars on which this nation was founded.

This was not only those pillars the inevitable result of European settlement, our national language and our Judeo Christian values which permeate our laws and customs, whatever religion or lack of religion we may profess.

What our founders gave us were two other institutions of inestimable value which remain with us to day. 


…never a gulag… 

The first was the rule of law. As we noted on this site[ii], Australia has been very fortunate in the calibre of so many of those involved in the government of the early colonial establishments.

 It is worth mentioning Lord Sydney, whom too many glibly dismiss as being of no consequence.  He had taken a decision which would have a fundamental effect on the colony.  Instead of just establishing it as a military prison, he provided for a civil administration, with courts of law.

 To speak then of the colony as a gulag, as republican Robert Hughes does, is wrong.  The rule of law came to Australia from the founding of the colony in 1788.

 Just consider one example.  An early civil action brought by convicts against a ship captain for theft was defended on the ground that at common law felons could not sue.  The court required the captain to prove this, which was of course impossible since the records were in England.

 Can Mr. Hughes give us a similar example of litigation by prisoners in a Soviet gulag?  If not, then he should desist from naming it a gulag.

Lord Sydney’s decision reflected very much the views of the first Governor, Captain, later Admiral Arthur Phillip.

He wrote, before leaving England, that in this new  "… there will be no slavery and hence no slaves.”  Phillip also ordered that Aborigines be treated well, and indicated that the murder of an Aborigine would be punished by hanging.

The other pillar brought by Phillip was the Crown, our oldest institution, one offering leadership above politics. When the British gave us – gave us, there was no War of Independence – self government under the Westminster system, the Crown emerged as central to our system of government, an institution crossing the federal state boundaries and providing a crucial  check and balance to the other intuitions of government.

Certainly let us celebrate what we are, but let us remember why we celebrate Australia Day and how those events long ago formed the nation.



Column:” Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit “,28 November 2006 


Column: “Captain Arthur Phillip”, 26 March 2007 


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