Hundreds of thousands told they can ‘swap the date’ and work Australia Day

Hundreds of thousands of workers across the public and private sectors will be given the option to work on Australia Day instead of celebrating the public holiday as the national debate intensifies about the appropriateness of celebrating the 1788 arrival of the first fleet.

Woolworths,which employs 160,000 people across the country,has told its staff they can choose to work on January 26 and take another off at the discretion of their manager as it was “up to each team member to mark the day as it suits them”,while universities are negotiating the arrangement with their 130,000-strong workforce.

Thousands of Australian employees are being given the chance to work on Australia Day as public sentiment around the holiday changes.

But the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is one of few unions advocating for staff to be given the option to work in a push being mostly led by corporate Australia.

Scott Connolly,the deputy head of the ACTU,said the movement was “looking forward to the national conversation on the Voice later this year”.

Campaigns to change the date have gained momentum in recent years and protest rallies and ceremonies marking the date as Invasion Day or Survival Day are now annual fixtures.

While Morrison-era requirements that citizenship ceremonies could only be held on January 26,were overturned late last year,Prime Minister Anthony Albanese denied the government was preparing to scrap Australia Day.

An invasion day rally held at the Domain in Sydney,on January 26.

An invasion day rally held at the Domain in Sydney,on January 26.Dominic Lorrimer

After the government overturned a ban on the Commonwealth public service substituting Australia Day for another,Albanese said January 26 working arrangements across the country was “a matter for employers and employees to work through”.

The government’s decision to lift the ban was criticised by Victorian Liberal senator Jane Hume,who accused Labor of “deliberately undermining Australia Day” and called on the government to reverse the decision.

“Rather than attempt to provide unity by acknowledging our common values on a common day,they have told public servants that their national holiday isn’t something they need to recognise,” Hume said.

Organisations allowing staff to swap the date

While Telstra,Network Ten,law firms and consultancies Deloitte and PwC have policies in place allowing people to swap their Australia Day holiday for another date,Woolworths is the largest single private sector employer to have voiced support for giving staff the option to work as the company was “proud to be a snapshot of Australian society”.

“And to that end,we recognise the 26th of January means different things to different people. We think it’s up to each team member to mark the day as it suits them and our priority is creating a safe and supportive environment in our stores and sites,” the spokesperson said.

Australia Day celebrations on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in 2021.

Australia Day celebrations on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in 2021.James Brickwood

“We remain focused on our reconciliation commitments including supporting the aims of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Team members who would prefer to work on January 26 and take another day of leave can do so at the discretion of their manager.”

Craig Laughton,executive director of the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association,the employer association for universities,said there was a “real desire” among his members to give staff the option,with several institutions considering the arrangement and some offers imminent.

He said many universities were investigating whether their enterprise agreements allowed it. “Some are just going to do it regardless because that’s what they want to do,” he said. “The sector as a whole is really starting to vote with its feet more.”

University of Wollongong announced this month it would be giving its staff the option to work.

NTEU president Dr Alison Barnes said:“Allowing a choice of whether to work or not acknowledges that many in our community don’t want to mark the anniversary of genocide,dispossession and suffering with a public holiday,” she said.

However,Australian Workers’ Union head Daniel Walton said the priority for the union movement was to focus on the referendum for an Indigenous Voice to parliament rather than a conversation on Australia Day. “All boats need to be rowing in the same direction here,” he said.

Katy Gallagher,the minister responsible for the Commonwealth public service,has overturned a ban on people working Australia Day.

Katy Gallagher,the minister responsible for the Commonwealth public service,has overturned a ban on people working Australia Day.Alex Ellinghausen

Electrical Trades Union acting national secretary Michael Wright said Australia Day itself wasn’t “fit for purpose.”

NSW Public Service Association secretary Stewart Little said substituting Australia Day wasn’t something his members had raised.

Victoria’s public servants are given the opportunity under their enterprise agreement to substitute any public holiday for another day if their boss allows it.

The Federal Minister for the Public Service,Katy Gallagher,said on Wednesday the government had lifted the prohibition on substituting January 26,put in place under former prime minister Scott Morrison shortly before last year’s federal election,adding it was in line with Labor’s policy to allow employers and workers to freely bargain on such matters.

Gallagher said there was growing awareness of how Australia Day celebrations affected Indigenous Australians,and people within the community “have different views about it,and what it means to them”.

“And,you know,part of what we are trying to do with our campaign around the Voice is to bring the country together in a genuine attempt to address some of the pain that comes from the history of this country,” she said,but added that was a “separate issue”.

Leading Voice to Parliament campaigner Megan Davis said recently changing the date of Australia Day would be a symbolic move that would have little tangible impact on the lives of Indigenous Australians as she urged people to instead support constitutional recognition.

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Angus Thompson is a federal political reporter covering industrial relations for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Tom Rabe is the WA political correspondent,based in Perth.

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