The phrase “Land of the Long Weekend” was coined by the late conservative Melbourne psychologist and sociology commentator Ronald Conway, as the title of a book he published in 1976.
I have not read that book, but I consider, just like Donald Horne’s 1963 classic The Lucky Country, the phrase itself has passed into Australian conceptual memory as an expression to be dredged up from time to time, devoid of its original meaning, by people who want to make a point (whether or not the point is connected to what the author originally meant).
In appropriating that phrase from Mr Conway, I am at risk of using it ignorantly in a way estranged from whatever he wrote in his book. However, unlike the industrial relations commentators of the 1990s who sought to use it to argue in favour of less public holidays and longer working weeks, I want to use it simply as a segue into a discussion on Australia Day.
We have a lot of public holidays in Australia, which are leveraged into either long weekends, or, if the day falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, into a four day weekend. This is part of our way of life, and something which I think is pretty much sacrosanct in a country as wealthy as ours. In Victoria alone, there are 11 public holidays (not counting those like Easter Sunday which fall on the weekend).
One of those, which is rather contentious at the moment, is the 26th of January, currently known as Australia Day but which previously was known in various guises as Settlement Day and Foundation Day.
This day is the one which marks the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788, and which is called Invasion Day by indigenous Australians and many other Australians.
I am a patriotic Australian, but I also believe in respecting the feelings of other people, particularly fellow Australians. And perhaps, as I get older, I get more progressive about some things. Hence, much as I strongly believe, for hedonistic reasons, that we need a public holiday at this time of year, and for patriotic reasons that we need to have an inclusive national day, I am now sympathetic to the idea of moving the date of Australia Day.
This is probably going to happen organically, and I think that PM Scott Morrison’s campaign to try and rebrand Australia Day as an inclusive event is bound for failure for as long as it falls on 26 January. Too many people (including me) now feel that it is hurtful to the indigenous original inhabitants.
But the whole idea of promoting 26 January is a fairly recent thing. Older friends tell me that it was the Fraser Government in the 1970s who really first sought to promote it, because the real national holiday, Anzac Day, was not really inclusive of all the post war migrants who had not served or were descended from those who had served in the two world wars in the Australian forces.
I am not impressed, despite being a very conservative person, with some of the populist dog whistling which has gone on in recent years about the sanctity of Australia Day. WA Senator Dean Smith proposed, a year or two ago, a private member’s bill requiring a popular referendum or plebiscite before the date could be changed. Well and good for Senator Smith (who is mostly a good bloke) to become a born again populist. But I do remember that he very firmly argued against the idea of a plebiscite on same sex marriage not long before that because the federal parliament should not seek to abdicate its responsibility to make laws.
So, as I have said, there is at least a twofold problem. One is to find a decent reason to have a public holiday in late January or early February because this is something we are used to having. The second is to have a more inclusive national day. And perhaps a third is to mark a day for national reconciliation with the indigenous inhabitants.
And being me, born and raised in The Land Of The Long Weekend, my solution is a threefold one, that is, replace Australia Day with three public holidays.
Taking late January or early February first, we could either make the final day of the Australian Open a public holiday (in Melbourne we already have 2 public holidays to mark sporting events), or we could celebrate Lunar New Year, which happens around now. [As close to 2 million Australians are now of Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry, Lunar New Year might be a worthwhile alternative public holiday at this time of year.]
Alternatively, 13 February, which is the anniversary of the 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations, could serve perfectly for both the need for a summer holiday and indigenous reconciliation.
Then there is the idea of when we should celebrate Australia Day?
My personal choice is 8 August, the date of the Battle of Amiens in 1918, when the five divisions of the Australian Corps, under the command of General Monash (along with various other forces also placed under the command of this unique Australian), broke through the German lines at the start of the final offensive which led to the defeat of Germany 3 months later. General Ludendorff (who, contrary to what is shown in the first Wonder Woman movie, lived into the 1930s and got up to lots more mischief) called that day the ‘Black Day of the German army’. Hence we could call 8 August either Amiens Day or Schwartzertag, the day when Australia first took a significant step on the world stage as a young nation.
Or there is 9 May, which is the anniversary of the 1901 opening of the first parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. That day, marking the birth of a progressive and inclusive democracy which preserves one of the freest nations on the planet, could be considered more inclusive than 26 January.
For a day for national reconciliation with the indigenous original inhabitants, 13 February, as indicated above, does tick two important boxes. But 27 May, which is the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which gave aborigines the full rights of citizenship finally, is probably a very worthy day to be considered.
Australia is a very rich country. We can afford to have several more public holidays. Moving Australia Day, either to a day significant to reconciliation with the original inhabitants, or to a day significant to a stride in the development of the Commonwealth, would be a worthy step to take. Having a day to mark either of these themes separately is something that we should consider.