Australia Day 2024 poses more than the usual challenges

January 26 poses more than the usual challenges in 2024. Barely 100 days since the failed referendum there is the real prospect of the respective advocates and supporters reigniting a process, the only real outcome of which was community division. There is the risk of stirring more pain for some and a sense of triumphalism for others. More than ever Australia Day is the nation’s enduring puzzle.

In many ways the cause for reconciliation went backwards, not just because of the emphatic nature of the referendum result, but because the process brought out much resentment and rejection, exemplified by calls to end Welcome to Country ceremonies, which have become an integral part of Australian gatherings.

Most Australians probably just want to ‘move on’. That is likely the case for the federal government, which invested vast political capital for negative return. The challenge is about how the nation might move on and what tangible steps could be taken to assist that process. Australia Day is an early test.

So the principal objective for the government is likely to be seeking unity through healing and hope. While it needs to at least sketch out the directions and dimensions for indigenous affairs, it could emphasise there is an opportunity for a fresh start, appealing to the broad centre of community opinion that earnestly yearns for a productive way forward.

As has long been the case, however, the undeniable realities of what in today’s parlance was an abrupt colonial usurping of ownership, are difficult to avoid. For some, January 26 has long been a trigger for much sorrow and anger. For others it is a marker of a new dawn. How to reconcile the Australia Day puzzle has been uppermost in the nation’s consciousness, to the point of becoming an annual trial, if not a torment.  But perhaps there is ‘a way through’, as that creative advocate for national reform, Rick Farley, was prone to seek.

A curious feature of the last 30 years is that successive federal governments have largely neglected the significance and potential of official proclamations made in the 1980s and early 90s. These relate to the identification of Acacia pycnantha as the nation’s floral emblem and the proclaiming of National Wattle Day, as a day of national celebration, annually on 1 September.  It is surprising that it has been the office of the Governor-General under successive occupants, not governments, that has given proper and ever-increasing recognition to their observance.

In National Wattle Day we have the ready-made scaffolding for a truly authentic and national day of celebration.  It quite literally roots us into this ancient land that is the locus of our stories and shared aspirations. While first celebrated in 1910 as an expression of Australian identity post-Federation, it now links back to our earliest times – as wattles have been a feature in our land for 30 million years.

Given the significance and various roles of wattles in diverse Aboriginal societies, truly it can be said that wattle has been in the lives of every Australian who has walked on this land. In terms of cultural baggage or social division, National Wattle Day is a safe haven with deep social and cultural roots, uniting all Australians in our multicultural society. It expresses both healing and hope.

By underwriting properly resourced National Wattle Day celebrations, the government could leave it to the people to find ‘a way through’ on this matter. Just as wattle has been in the lives of all Australians, so too it could be left to Australians to determine, over time, how and when our shared aspirations as a nation are best celebrated. Hope, healing and unity.

Terry Fewtrell is a former President of the Wattle Day Association Inc.