17 January 2023

Public sector can lead over Australia Day debate

| Chris Johnson
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Australia Day isn’t a party for everyone. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

When it comes to driving cultural change in Australia, public servants have more influence than many might suspect.

Sure, the public service works at the behest of the government of the day and does all it must in order to (in an apolitical manner) please its political masters and implement their agenda.

But for better or for worse, the sector also guides the discourse in many ways and has a powerful impact on outcomes.

One current cultural and political national discussion centres on the timing of our day of celebration. The day the nation stops to party. The day we call Australia Day.

Australia Day has long been celebrated on 26 January – and for just as long, it has been opposed by a significant part of the population.

For Indigenous Australians, 26 January marks a day of invasion, dispossession and longtime suffering.

Calls to change the date of the national celebration in order for it to be more inclusive and more respectful of Australia’s First Nations people have been made since before the public holiday was even gazetted.

Those calls have become stronger and the voices clearer in recent years.

It’s past overdue that those in positions of power listen and act.

READ ALSO Federal public servants don’t have to take 26 January off

Different stripes of government will approach the debate according to their own respective values and the position of their powerbases.

Scott Morrison and the Coalition went so far as to deny public servants the option to swap 26 January for another day off, whereas for most other public holidays they could change their leave.

That move was not merely playing deaf to the calls to reassign the controversial date; it was actively seeking to ensure the day was commemorated by the workforce no matter who it offended.

Since coming to office last year, Labor has revoked that directive and has allowed federal public servants to negotiate an alternative day’s leave should they so desire.

There has been little promotion of that provision however, and even less encouragement.

And actually changing the date for the Australia Day public holiday might just be too big of an ask for any government.

There are strong and considered arguments on both sides.

Or perhaps a change is closer than ever before.

It is being discussed inside the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet right now. It’s been discussed there for some time.

In the meantime, however, it is a pretty simple thing to do to allow an employee to work on 26 January if celebrating national pride on that date is offensive to them.

And it’s the decent thing to do.

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More private sector businesses are letting employees take an alternative day’s leave if 26 January offends them. Non-government organisations have been leaders in this recognition.

But it should be something that is led by the public sector, which, when it comes to being flexible with working arrangements, has always been accommodating.

An Acknowledgement of Country is now firmly embedded in the Australian Public Service.

Opening every meeting that involves anyone from the senior executive service ranks, there will be an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land on which that meeting is being held. Many gatherings of the lower APS ranks do the same now.

Every department has a Reconciliation Action Plan.

First Nations recruitment, mentoring and career pathways are being implemented across agencies.

Closing the Gap impacts are considered and applied to almost all policy developments.

The public sector is leading on this front and it is helping to direct the course of the national conversation.

Encouraging Indigenous employees and those workers who stand with them to swap 26 January for another day of leave can be an additional and immediate part of this move while the debate about the date continues.

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Australia is a great country, founded by Europeans. Millions of people from all over the world want to come here because of how great the Europeans made it. The healthcare is good, the welfare system is good, the legal system is pretty decent (compared to a lot of countries) and Indigenous Australians are given funding, grants, special healthcare centres, welcome to country ceremonies, special cultural days, and no laws discriminate against them in any way. If you don’t like Australia Day, then renounce your citizenship and move away from Australia.

Capital Retro12:35 pm 18 Jan 23

One of the best comments ever posted, anywhere.

It will be interesting to see who disagrees with what you said.

HiddenDragon7:05 pm 17 Jan 23

The first babies whose mothers benefited from the APS paid maternity leave scheme will turn 50 this year. Babies whose parents had to wait for a national paid parental leave scheme will turn 12 this year.

I would not recommend holding your breath while waiting for APS pace-setting, leadership, posturing (whatever you like to call it) on the Australia Day debate to carry the rest of the nation with it.

Perhaps we should change the name from Australia Day to “Welcome to Country Day”

Capital Retro3:02 pm 18 Jan 23

The current narrative is that we are not welcome.

Similarly, I find ‘Harmony Day’ trite, offensive and patronising so I have zero interest in it.

“In the meantime, however, it is a pretty simple thing to do to allow an employee to work on 26 January if celebrating national pride on that date is offensive to them.”

Why have public holidays at all if this is the case?

The whole idea that if people don’t like a specific public holiday, they should be able to swap it defeats the reason why public holidays exist in the first place.

If you want people to be able to pick and choose which days to take off, the government should just enact laws to give all employees another 10 days leave and then remove all public holidays entirely.

“For Indigenous Australians, 26 January marks a day of invasion, dispossession and longtime suffering.”
Have a brief look at whats happening in Ukraine and let me know which is worse?
The Day the first fleet landed was 17 Jan 1788, wouldnt ‘today’ be invastion day.

Surely public servants should do as they are told and follow the lines, not think for themselves. They are paid to work and do a job and nothing more, their bosses would have far better idea whats going on that most of the staff. When they start to do things outside that then things start costing more and the basic standard of things they are required to do drops.

Rather than banning things, what is the end goal? No one alive today was around 250 years ago when our cultures mixed.
The further away from those events the more we’re re-imagining our history like a hollywood movie and outsiders who aren’t even affected are the most noisy about it.

It doesn’t even seem guinine from either side, both are using the debate as a measure of how good their party is and how out of touch the other is.

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