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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Respect and Australia Day

On Saturday, the Prime Minister will preside over citizenship ceremonies in Commonwealth Park, something all his predecessors have done for years. But this year there are few things adding to the atmospherics of the day. Scott Morrison wants to teach us all a bit of respect.

He has stirred a controversy over wanting a dress code for new citizens at the event, although he so far hasn’t spelled out what it is. He has given a deadline of 2020 for new arrangements coming into play that also require councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on 26 January. It’s a warning to the 30% of councils, mainly with Greens Party mayors who, out of respect for Aboriginal Australians, have moved the ceremony to other days. Something Morrison chooses to ignore.

Morrison defends his musings on a stricter dress code by saying it acknowledges the serious nature of what’s happening on the day: “By all means wear the boardies and the thongs at the barbecue after, at the beach or wherever you’re doing it. But on the day I think it’s important to have standards around these important institutions.” They already exist. I have attended many of the Commonwealth Park ceremonies and our “new” Australians invariably turn up in their Sunday best.

The suspicion is, the embattled Prime Minister – the summer opinion polls are still dire for the government – was itching for a political fight with his Labor opponents over “Australian values”. The problem for him was Bill Shorten did not take the bait. Labor has no interest in falling hook, line and sinker for a divisive debate over “change the day”. The Labor leader says he has no plans to do so and having a “national day is a good idea”. But he did have a dig by telling Morrison that people want to be left alone on Australia Day. He says: “I don’t want to be the fashion police telling people what they can wear at citizenship ceremonies.”

Nor should it be assumed that all Aboriginal leaders support the call for a change of date away from “Invasion Day”. A growing number are calling to “fix the nation” rather than the date that commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet of Europeans. By that they mean addressing the failure in our founding document, the Constitution, to acknowledge traditional ownership over 60,000 years of continuous custodianship.

The unfinished business of reconciliation is more pressing and despite promises from both sides for a referendum to amend the Constitution, it has not happened. Shorten is promising to hold one as a priority if he wins government.

Australians’ embrace of the Rudd apology to the “Stolen Aboriginal Generations” shows a generous awareness we do need to come to terms with all sides of our nation’s history.

Reading Peter Carey’s novel, A Long Way From Home over the holidays, poignantly brought home to me the sad history of race relations we have till now preferred to forget.

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