Searching for a National Day

The Australian of the Year award has been closely associated with Australia’s national day since its inception in 1960. Australia Day has never been a unanimously supported date for national celebration, so the Australian of the Year award has often been linked to broader questions about Australia’s national identity. Furthermore, the award has never entirely avoided the debates that surround the expression of patriotic fervour in a country undergoing significant social and political change. The leading scholar Benedict Anderson famously described nations as ‘imagined communities’ – socially constructed groups of people who perceive that they have a common identity. In Australia, the nation has been imagined in a wide variety of ways: Australia’s changing relationship with the world, the role of sport in Australian culture, the impact of multiculturalism, and the status of Australia’s Indigenous people have all exerted an influence on debates about Australian identity. The quest for a national day has been part of the process by which the people of Australia have imagined for themselves a unique identity. Australia Day has been (and still is) a subject of debate, reflecting the fact that national identity is fluid and hard to define. The Australian of the Year award has had to negotiate this tricky terrain.

Although 26 January has been a significant date in Australia since 1788, the name ‘Australia Day’ was not used uniformly across the country until 1935, and it did not become a uniform national holiday until 1994. Australia Day marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. Furthermore, the tradition of raising the flag on Australia Day is a reconstruction of Captain Cook’s actions in claiming the continent for Britain in 1770. Thus, Australia’s national day is explicitly linked with the British Crown’s claim of sovereignty over the continent. ‘Anniversary Day’ began to be celebrated in the early nineteenth century and for the thirtieth anniversary in 1818 Governor Lachlan Macquarie declared the day a public holiday. For some time it remained primarily a New South Wales celebration, as other Australian colonies were more inclined to celebrate their own founding days. Nevertheless, as the destiny of the Australian colonies began to converge, 26 January acquired a more general significance. Australia’s Federation in 1901 signalled a new era: the peoples of six distinct colonies, previously united by their (predominantly) British ethnic origins, were now represented by one parliament for the continent. The new nation proudly recognised its British origins; as New South Wales Premier Henry Parkes put it, ‘The crimson thread of friendship runs through us all.’ Nevertheless, the new national parliament provided a stronger sense of a common identity around which a uniquely Australian form of patriotism and national fervour could flourish.

 Despite this, there was no clear candidate for a national day. Those who hoped to assert Australia’s connection with Britain were inclined to promote ‘Empire Day’ (24 May). Other dates vied for official status, including the anniversary of Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay (29 April), but 26 January had a very influential organisation as its advocate. The Australian Natives Association (ANA), a mutual society for Australian born men, had been a strong campaigner for Federation. After debating the issue at a national conference in 1910, the ANA began to promote annual celebrations on 26 January. The Victorian branch of the ANA was particularly vocal in its support for what it called ‘Foundation Day’; curiously, interstate rivalry did not prevent the Victorians from championing the celebration of a New South Wales anniversary for the nation as a whole. It would be some time, however, before the day achieved a high public profile. In 1930 the Victorian branch of the ANA adopted the new name of ‘Australia Day’ and began a campaign to convince other states to follow suit; by 1935 it had succeeded, but celebrations were usually held on the Monday following Australia Day.

In the meantime, Australian national identity became more tangible. The enthusiasm for Federation was followed by the heroics of the Australian war effort – at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, and later during World War Two. Australia slowly wrote its own chapters in the history of the world; its link with Britain remained strong, but a distinct Australian identity began to emerge. The flourishing of Australian identity was also evident in artistic and cultural forms: the literature of Lawson and Patterson, the art of the Heidelberg School and the parochialism of the Bulletin certainly bolstered Australia’s sense of a unique identity. During the Depression of the 1930s sporting heroes like Don Bradman and Phar Lap provided cultural icons around which national identity could form. All of these factors provided the foundation for a more secure form of nationalism. On Australia Day in 1949 the new Australian Citizenship Act took effect, defining the legal meaning of being an Australian citizen and not merely a British subject living in Australia.6 Since 1949, citizenship ceremonies have been closely associated with Australia Day, providing an important forum for patriotic celebration.

Fittingly, it was the Victorian branch of the ANA that established the first Australia Day Council in 1946.7 The new council was a membership-based organisation that strove to educate the public on the significance of Australia Day and encourage celebrations. In subsequent years, various other states formed their own Australia Day Councils, and in 1957 these bodies cooperated to form the Federal Australia Day Council, which was administered from the various states on a rotating basis. The Federal Council attempted (without success) to formalise a relationship with the Federal Government.8 Nevertheless, a stronger sense of national identity gave impetus to the campaign for a more prominent national day. The Australia Day Council of Victoria remained a key advocate for proper celebrations, as it was the best resourced and most active of the various state based councils. It was to play a fundamental role in the early history of the Australian of the Year awards.