Big Four leaders share their views on Australia Day debate

27 January 2023 5 min. read
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With the annual controversy around the date of Australia Day continuing to grow, a number of senior leaders from the nation’s Big Four consulting and accounting firms have shared their personal views.

As the dust settles on another divisive Australia Day, several leaders of the local Big Four consulting and accounting networks have taken to social media to express their personal views on the current date of the public holiday and the persistent and growing questions over whether it needs to be changed, specifically in light of what the January 26 date represents and its negative impact on many Indigenous Australians in marking the beginning of colonisation.

Already, the policy stances of a number of nation’s biggest organisations including the Big Four – Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young, and KPMG – in allowing staff to choose whether to work on Australia Day and take another day off in lieu has drawn significant media attention, along with the usual backlash from defenders of the January 26 date.

Adam Powick, Shelley Reys and Shannon Cotter

Adam Powick

“Yesterday I was asked by a number of journalists whether I was working on Australia Day,” stated Deloitte Australia CEO Adam Powick in a widely supported post to LinkedIn. “At one level this is a seemingly innocuous question, at another level it aptly reflects the contention and divisiveness that has come to symbolise our national day. And that is a pity given there is a lot to celebrate being part of the prosperous, diverse and vibrant nation we are today.”

“The reality though is there is a shadow over our national day, given it officially commemorates the date of the first European settlement of our land. While this is a date of undoubted historical significance, it is not a date that is celebrated by our First Nations people who predated the arrival of the First Fleet by 65,000 years and who suffered significant harm and loss as a result of colonisation,” Powick continues, before asking how we should best recognise Australia Day?

Despite this recognition of Indigenous suffering, Powick believes that questions over the date of national celebration are less important that elevating the focus on who we are and want to be as a nation, forwarding the view that “Australia Day provides us with a timely opportunity to reflect on our national identity, embrace our rich and ancient Indigenous history, appreciate the strength and diversity of our present day capabilities, and envision new and exciting future possibilities.”

Shelley Reys

Shelley Reys – the CEO of Arrilla Indigenous Consulting and KPMG board member and partner who as a Djirribul woman has a distinguished background in the national Indigenous reconciliation movement – has been far more explicit in her beliefs, stating in recent op-ed published in the Australian; “We’ve debated long enough. We need to take the courageous action of changing the date in order to reach the lofty aspirations many of us have for us united tomorrow.”

In the piece, Reys counters a number of arguments against, such that those supporting a change of date are not proud Australians and that everyone should just accept the date and move on. She also proposes a shift to a sliding date akin to the Melbourne Cup, so that the date itself doesn’t mark a particular day in the nation’s history but provides a stand-alone opportunity for an Australia Day holiday “that brings us all together for no reason other than to celebrate being Australian.”

Reys does however agree with Powick’s broader sentiment on taking the opportunity of Australia Day to consider the nation’s present and future path. “I would also like to see us combine celebration with a time to reflect,” she writes. “I’d like to see an Australia Day that reflects on what makes us great, what we have achieved, where we are today, where we are challenged, and what kind of future we want to build for ourselves, our families, and our workplaces as part of our global citizenship.”

Shannon Cotter

In contrast to Powick – who noted that he would indeed take the (rare) day off from meetings and calls to spend time with loved ones and reflect on the nation’s future and his gratitude in being able to Australia home – EY’s regional managing partner for Strategy & Transactions, Shannon Cotter, made it more than clear in a LinkedIn post that she would be clocking on as per usual.

Notably, she was also recently appointed as executive sponsor of EY’s indigenous services practices.

“How people choose to spend 26 January is a personal choice. But for me there is no question – I’ll be working – and that’s because for many people this is not a day of celebration, it’s a day of mourning and I have made the personal decision not to recognise this public holiday. I’m lucky that I work at a firm like EY that gives me the option. We can’t change the past, but making this choice is my own small step in recognition of the sad and brutal history this day represents.”

Cotter further explains how her executive sponsorship role and listening to Indigenous voices has helped shape her view; “I grew up in Australia but sadly don’t have a strong memory about our First Nations history being taught at school. Most of my learning has happened as an adult and actually almost all of it very recently. I will never have the lived experience our First Nations people have, and the generosity of my First Nations colleagues to help me learn has been immense.”