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Can we end the civil war in Australia on race and culture?

The Sensible Centre Director Vern Hughes in The Australian Business Executive

Australia needs a national settlement of our deep political and cultural divisions around indigenous occupancy of land and cultural continuity, British annexation of land and colonisation, and the rapid growth of a hybrid culturally-mixed (but not yet culturally cohesive) population.

These divisions have become more intense in recent years and have rightly been called ‘culture wars’.

They threaten to undermine our unity of purpose and social cohesion, and sap the goodwill of Australians from all backgrounds.

We need to set a settlement date by which the nation settles this conflict. This would be a date by which land claims are finalized, local treaty processes concluded, truth-telling exercises completed, place name changes finalised, and a line drawn in the sand which marks the end of both race-based discrimination and race-based culture wars.

Both Right and Left need to make major concessions to enable this settlement to happen. They need to abandon their culture wars and begin reconciling with the great majority of Australians who want these issues settled.

We think this settlement date should:

1. Take the place of Australia Day as our national day.

The 26th of January marks the commencement of British colonial settlement in Australia. That is an appropriate occasion for British commemoration, but it doesn’t mark or commemorate achievement by Australians. Captain James Cook was a notable British explorer, navigator and naturalist. He should be commemorated by Britain and the global geographic and scientific community. But he wasn’t an Australian.

The Right should give up insisting that Cook’s voyages or the beginning of British settlement on the 26th of January are Australian achievements.

2. Conclude treaty processes underway in the Northern Territory and Victoria, and land claims under the Native Title Act.

This can best be done by the inclusion of sunset clauses in relevant legislature marking the settlement date.

The Left should give up seeking reparations or compensation for the British annexation of land. By this settlement date, it should drop the mantra “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”.

3. Mark the replacement of the British Crown by an Australian head of state.

The best model for an Australian head of state would be appointment of an Australian citizen for a period of five years by a jury of citizens selected by lot by the Australian Electoral Commission following a public nomination process. Selection by jury process (with an emphasis on consensus) avoids the risk of a partisan politicised head of state that would result from either parliamentary appointment or popular election.

The Right should give up its attachment to the British Crown and accept an Australian citizen as head of state.

4. Mark an end to the official practice of Welcome to/ Acknowledgement of Country.

The Welcome to/ Acknowledgement of Country practice has served a useful function of reminding Australians of indigenous occupancy of land and cultural continuity for sixty thousand years. But it has become formulaic and tired. The practice should not continue in perpetuity. The settlement date would mark the end of the practice in official events and government settings.

The Left should give up its attachment to the Welcome to Country practice.

5. Mark the decommissioning of race-specific government programs.

The settlement date should mark the adoption of needs-based funding criteria in government programs in place of race-based criteria. A range of race-based programs should be decommissioned by this date, along with the practice of government forms and surveys stipulating information on people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, as if these are a different species from the other 97% of Australians.

Both Right and Left should give up their administration of race-specific programs in government.

6. Mark the commencement of a search for a new unifying national flag.

A public search for an inclusive and unifying Australian flag would be launched on this date. The official practice of displaying the current national flag, along with the red-black-yellow (Aboriginal flag) and Torres Strait Islander flag in government offices and buildings would cease with the adoption of a unifying flag.

The Right should give up its attachment to the current national flag featuring the Union Jack. The Left should give up its attachment to the red-black-yellow (Aboriginal) flag.

We think a settlement date that serves these purposes would bring Australians together and unite the country. We think a three-year period of public discussion would be an appropriate period of preparation – any longer than three years carries the risk of deferral of urgent decision-making in the national interest.

Our recommended settlement date is 27 January 2026.

This is the day following 26th January, the day that has been observed as Australia Day for the last 29 years, since 1994. The Australian nation evolved after the 26th January 1788 – it did not begin on that day, it evolved over the course of many subsequent decades – so it is appropriate that a post-26 January date serves as a settlement date. The 27th January serves this purpose, without disrupting our traditional end of January long weekend that marks the end of the summer holiday season.

We would call this day Reconciliation Day to mark the settlement of these issues. It would replace Australia Day. A three year period of public discussion would run until 31 December 2025.

Can Australians come together and settle these issues? We think Australians are mature enough to do it. The alternative is to allow the current civil war to run on in perpetuity. Very few of us prefer that option.

Vern Hughes is Director of Civil Society Australia and Convenor of The Sensible Centre. Find out more about the Campaign to End the Civil War on Race and Culture here: www.sensiblecentre.org.au/settlement/.

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