Political champion needed to advance portable public holidays idea

Si Gladman / 22 May 2023

A proposal to change the system of public holidays to better reflect Australia’s increasing cultural diversity and the rise of the non-religious needs a political champion to succeed, the latest episode of The Secular Agenda podcast has heard.

In an interview for the podcast, Hugh Piper, the Program Lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue, spoke about his idea for Australia adopting a portable public holidays system.

Under his proposal – which he detailed in an article of the Lowy Institution’s Interpreter blog earlier this year – each person would have a quota of public holidays and be able to decide which days they take off.

Piper said such a system would provide a secular solution in allowing people of non-Christian faiths to celebrate their festive days as public holidays and in allowing non-religious people to also mark their days of importance.

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But he conceded the idea would need a politician with an electoral incentive to advocate for the reform.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see it happening tomorrow or any time in the next five or 10 years. But I think there is an inevitability to generational change in Australia and a very kind of gradual demographic – and shift that’s followed by, I guess, a political shift, as well,” he said.

“I think the demographic trends seem to point toward Australia becoming less religious on the whole and becoming more diverse in cultural and belief systems on the whole, as well. And I think it will probably get to a point where there is a broad and intuitive recognition that the current arrangement for public holidays is simply untenable and inconsistent with what Australia is.

“It probably needs a political champion, though, more than anything.”

Piper said his model would allocate each person four portable holidays while retaining common days that are based on shared civic beliefs and that have unifying characteristics — such as Anzac Day, Labor Day and, in future, a possible Republic Day.

“And that means if you are Christian you can celebrate Easter and Christmas in exactly the same way that the calendar currently dictates at the moment. But if you follow another belief system, you can use those days in a way that reflects your system of belief,” he said.

“That seems to be a very civic and secular answer to this question of: How does the state give people the time and space to celebrate events and days that are important to them but do so in a way that is genuinely equal across all people?’

“I think it definitely has the potential to be popular. I think, at least on the face of it, non-religious people or people from minority faith backgrounds that aren’t Christian or who don’t adhere to the kind of western Christian calendar of public holidays would potentially find it favourable and could easily support it.”

Piper noted that big companies were already giving their staff some flexibility in the public holidays they choose to observe, especially Australia Day.

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