Author: Chris Bourke
Originally posted on The Guardian on Monday 18 January 2016 15.51 AEDT
This year, let’s ditch the Queen’s Birthday holiday and replace it with Mabo Day
This week marks the anniversary of Eddie Mabo’s death. IndigenousX host Chris Bourke says it’s high time for a national day to celebrate his meaningful contribution to Australian history
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Last June, the Queen’s Birthday public holiday passed by with very little fanfare. The Queen’s Birthday Honours were announced, and a small number of formal government events were hosted. But by and large, the meaning of the day has largely lost its significance among the public, becoming simply about getting the day off work. While we all enjoy the day off, the day could become far more symbolic of our national history.
This day commemorating of the Queen’s official birthday has little significance in the lives of the vast majority of Australians. It is a hangover from Australia’s colonial past. Last year my main emotion, along with many other Canberrans, was a sense of relief that Tony Abbott didn’t award another one of his infamous knighthoods.
There is an alternate event in Australian history we could celebrate instead on the June public holiday that would infuse it with strong meaning again. The Queen’s public holiday falls in the same month as the 3rd of June anniversary of the Mabo decision, a pivotal day in Australian history.
In 1992, a decade-long legal struggle by Torres Strait Islander Eddie Koike Mabo led to the High Court ruling 6 to 1 in favour of Mabo’s land rights claim over Murray Island (also called Mer). The Mabo decision was a watershed in the struggle for Indigenous rights, and decisively overturned the 200 year-old lie of terra nullius.
Sadly, Mr Mabo did not live to witness the decision. He passed away on the 21st of January that year from cancer.The High Court’s decision was a significant turning point for Indigenous land rights. It was the first legal recognition that Australia was inhabited and owned by the first Australians before colonisation.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander links to their cultural and ancestral lands became enshrined in Australian law with the subsequent passing of the 1993 Native Title Act.
In Australia our national public holidays are New Year’s Day, Australia Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Anzac Day, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. All other public holidays such as Queen’s Birthday and Labour day are set at the state and territory level and are celebrated on different dates in different states.
For example in Canberra, the power to create Mabo Day rests with the ACT Government. The relevant legislation is the Holidays Act 1958 where Section 3(1)(a)(ix) provides that, in any year, ‘the 2nd Monday in June (the day for the observance of the anniversary of the birthday of the Sovereign)’ is a public holiday in the ACT. It would seem that changing the Queen’s Birthday holiday to Mabo Day would only require a clean substitution of the words of s 3(1)(a)(ix) with ‘the 2nd Monday in June (Mabo Day)’.
The ACT government has taken the lead on progressive policy in the past. We could use this opportunity to lead the nation in publicly recognising the achievements of the struggle for Indigenous land rights, especially the Mabo decision. No state or territory government has yet gazetted Mabo Day. Therefore the ACT has the opportunity to make Australian history, and forever have the honour of being the first jurisdiction to adopt a Mabo Day public holiday.
Adding to the simplicity of change, making Mabo Day as the June public holiday would be very straightforward, and create little controversy, except among the most hard-line monarchists who are a tiny proportion of Canberrans. This change would not disturb other gazetted public holidays.
Replacing the Queen’s Birthday with Mabo Day as a public holiday will also provide some impetus for our Reconciliation process which has become bogged down at the federal level with little action on advancing either constitutional recognition, or removing the racist powers in the Australian constitution.
Public commemorations that highlight the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people within contemporary Australian society create a greater appreciation of our 40,000 years of culture and civilisation. The ACT Government can and should be at the forefront of this change.
The stars are aligned. We have a day whose current significance has become irrelevant to the public, and we have an event of great significance to Australian history ready to take its place. Let’s make history.