Author The Honourable Richard Tracey AM RFD QC
Mr Tracey is currently sitting as a Royal Commissioners Commissioner on Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.
Mr Tracey was a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia from 2006 until 2018, President of the Defence Force Discipline Appeal Tribunal from 2009 until 2018, and Judge Advocate General of the Australian Defence Force from 2007 until 2014.
Prior to becoming a Judge, Mr Tracey taught law in a number of academic roles and worked as a barrister, being appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1991. He also served in the Australian Army from 1975 until 2014, achieving the rank of Major-General.
Mr Tracey has served for many years on the Australia Day Council (Victoria) is a current member.
The Origin of Australia Day
The idea of an Australian National day is quite a recent phenomenon. Prior to the Second World War the 26th of January was celebrated by the Australian Natives Association, a Sydney based friendly society. In my childhood, older relations often referred to the Australia Day long weekend as ANA weekend. My understanding is that prior to the Second World War, Empire Day and the King’s birthday holiday were of greater significance. I should also mention the localised former colonial founding days such as Proclamation Day (South Australia), Foundation Day (Western Australia) and in Victoria, Separation Day, a state holiday until the First World War.
The national day emerged out of the end of the Second World War. The Australia Day Council (Victoria) held its first meeting under the Chairmanship of Field Marshall, Sir Thomas Blamey on the 31st of October 1946. The venue was the Melbourne Town Hall and the object was to promote a national day. It should be emphasised that most of the records of that meeting attended by many prominent citizens including the Lord Mayor and Deputy Premier also emphasised loyalty to the Crown and Empire such as it was in 1946. The selection of the 26th of January then as now was subject to some discussion. Other days suggested included Federation Day (1st January), Anzac Day (25th April) and the day that Captain Cook arrived at Botany Bay (23rd April 1770). The decision to stay with the 26th of January was based on the assumption that the arrival of the First Fleet represented the commencement of the present Australian culture as we know it, and this remains the central argument in retaining the 26th of January as our National Day.
The Australian Day Council held its first celebration, a lunch at the Melbourne Town Hall on the 26th of January 1948. At that stage the Australia Day Council (Victoria) was the only organisation celebrating the National Day. Gradually over the next five years other states formed Australia Day Councils, Committees and Associations. It was during this period that the Australia Day Council (Victoria) conceived the idea of an Australian of the Year, this occurred in 1959 and the first Australian of the Year, selected by a committee of the Australia Day Council (Victoria) was in 1960. The individual selected was Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, that year’s Nobel laureate for Medicine. In subsequent years other Nobel laureates such as Sir John Eccles, Patrick White and Professor John Cornforth were recognised. So too were contributors to Australia’s cultural heritage such as Dame Joan Sutherland, Sir Robert Helpmann, Sir Bernard Heinze and the entertainers, The Seekers. Also, during this period sportsmen and women such as Dawn Fraser, Lionel Rose, Evonne Goolagong and Shane Gould, the Olympic swimmer. Other notable recipients included Cardinal Gilroy, Lord Casey and the first Australian aboriginal elected to the parliament of Australia, Senator Neville Bonner.
In 1978, with the bi-centenary looming, the Federal Government determined for the first time to create and support financially a national body to promote Australia Day, that body had a national Chairman and Committee appointed by the government of the day. At the same time there were formed some state and territory committees appointed to support the national body. The price of the success in the formation of a national day funded by the Federal Government has been the loss of all the former member-based state organisations except the Australia Day Council (Victoria). It remains not only the founding body of Australia Day and Australian of the Year but the only member-based body with an elected rather than appointed board of management. In this respect the tradition founded by Sir Thomas Blamey in 1946 continues. The Australia Day Council (Victoria) strongly supports the National Australia Day Council, however still maintains many of its original functions. An Australia Day lunch or dinner is held annually at which a prominent Australian is invited as Guest of Honour. The Australia Day Council continues to organise Australia Day Services at St Pauls and St Patricks Cathedral and in the tradition of Sir Thomas Blamey, a wreath laying ceremony is held on Australia Day at the Shrine of Remembrance. An interesting tradition founded in 1946 continues to this day. Every baby born in Victoria on Australia Day receives a certificate and a commemorative spoon.
It is inspiring to consider that the seed of the idea of a national day sown in 1946 now has such a wide support and acceptance and reflects so well the aspirations of present-day Australian society.