Australia currently celebrates Australia Day on 26 January. I say currently advisedly. The day recalls 26 January 1788 when the First Fleet from Britain landed in Sydney, and established a permanent European settlement. Many indigenous Australians have mixed feelings about this date as our National Day and the impact of European settlement on their ancestors. Some call it Invasion Day.
It is only in relatively recent years that 26 January has been celebrated as our National Day. In fact it was not till 1988, on the bicentenary of the original settlement, that it became a national public holiday, having been an official holiday only since 1938. The Commonwealth of Australia itself was inaugurated as a nation on 1 January 1901. There is a strong argument for this date to be our National Day – along with of course New Year’s Day.
It is obviously ideal for a country’s national day to be one which all its citizens – particularly its original indigenous inhabitants with their special connection to the land we share - can embrace in a spirit of unity. The debate for now continues on the best date to celebrate that unity. In the meantime 26 January remains Australia Day – conveniently marking the end of summer holidays.
Regardless of the debate on the national day, the Commonwealth of Australia can be proud of its success as a multicultural nation. Social cohesion and respect for its diverse cultures is highly valued and not taken for granted in an increasingly polarised world. Australia Day is marked by citizenship ceremonies and a celebration of indigenous heritage, emphasising a sense of national belonging.
This is also a focus of the activities of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) branches in Australia. In Canberra a multi-faith observance is held on Commonwealth Day, and we work closely with the many ethnic and cultural organisations in our capital city.
Australia’s membership of the Commonwealth of Nations contributes to that cohesion. Along with the Australian born citizens, the birthplaces of 6 of the top 10 foreign born immigrant groups are Commonwealth members – namely UK, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. What binds us in common as Commonwealth member nations also bonds us as Australian citizens.
Australia is an Indo-Pacific nation with global interests and commitments. Part of that global commitment is to the Commonwealth, the values of its Charter and its work in addressing the challenges of democracy, development and climate change. Many of Australia’s neighbours in the South Pacific are also members of the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum. Our common membership reinforces a sense of shared interests and values – and a common future.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa in October 2024. This will be a historic moment as it is the first time a CHOGM has been held in a developing Pacific island nation. Australia and New Zealand, which have hosted several past CHOGMs, are, with other Pacific nations, rallying around Samoa to support it in ensuring a warm Pacific welcome for our 56 member nations from across the world. RCS Branches in Australia are keen to grow the RCS network across the Pacific.
Samoa’s theme for the 2024 CHOGM is “One Resilient Common Future: Transforming our Common Wealth”. It is a both an inspiring and challenging theme. It reminds us of the existential threat from climate change particularly facing the low lying South Pacific island nations. We need to build resilience and common approaches across the Commonwealth and the globe in addressing it.
There are also other major challenges, economic and geo-political. Australia, as the largest and most developed economy in the region, and its only G20 member in the region, has a major responsibility in working with Pacific and Commonwealth nations on common solutions.
In 2023 the Government of Prime Minister Albanese took a historic step in entering into a unique partnership agreement with fellow South Pacific Commonwealth nation Tuvalu, the Australia-Tuvalu “Falepili” Union. Felepili is a Tuvalu word meaning good neighbourliness. The agreement covers cooperation on climate change, human mobility and security. It also sets a precedent for possible future agreements of this nature with other Pacific nations as we build a common future.
Australian citizens can be proud their nation is playing a positive role in the region, the Commonwealth and the world. This is something to celebrate on this Australia Day, and whichever day that may be in the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hon Professor Matthew E K Neuhaus is the President of the Royal Commonwealth Society Canberra Branch and Honorary Professor at the ANU College of Law. Professor Neuhaus is a former Australian Ambassador and High Commissioner, and Political Director at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society.