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Understanding Australia Day

For many people, Australia Day is about celebrating the values, freedoms and pastimes of our country. It’s a time for BBQs in the backyard, having a beer with mates and proudly flying the flag. Australia Day claims to be about unifying all Australians, and yet ironically, it’s a divisive day for some people (1). So what’s all the fuss about? 

What’s Australia Day and why do we celebrate it?

Australia Day is a national public holiday on the 26th of January, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia. On that day in 1788, 11 convict ships from Great Britain landed at Port Jackson in New South Wales, where Governor Arthur Philip raised the British flag to signal the beginning of the British colony. 

Since the early days of the British colony, Sydney has marked the 26th of January using various names, such as Anniversary Day, First Landing Day and Foundation Day. This gradually evolved into ‘Australia Day’, and other states and territories officially adopted the name in 1935. Although celebrations originally focussed on the anniversary of the British occupation of New South Wales,  since 1979, the federal government began promoting an Australia Day that was less British and more Australian in the hope of unifying Australia's increasingly diverse population (2). Australia Day eventually became a national public holiday in 1994. According to the National Australia Day Council, it’s “the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation. It's the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future.” (3)

The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788, Algernon Talmadge R.A, 1937, Courtesy State Library of New South Wales

What’s the tension surrounding Australia Day?

 

For many Indigenous Australians, the 26th of January isn’t a day for celebrating. Indigenous people may be just as proud of this country, but many see January 26th as a date signifying the beginning of dispossession, disease epidemics, frontier violence, destruction of culture, exploitation, abuse, separation of families and subjection to policies of extreme social control. Consequently, some Australians (including many Indigenous people) refer to January 26th by other names, such as Invasion Day, Survival Day and Day of Mourning. 

Can’t we all just celebrate being Australian?

You may have heard it said (or even wondered yourself), “Why are Indigenous people making this an issue? After all, isn’t Australia Day for all Australians to come together and celebrate?” Others see the critique of Australia Day celebrations as excessive political correctness and governments pandering to the whims of minorities. 

 

It’s true, that as Australians, we should be able to come together and celebrate the things about our nation that we’re proud of and grateful for.

However, celebrating these things on the 26th January can divide us as Australians by marginalising and offending many Indigenous people who see this date as commencing a chain of events that had disastrous consequences for many Indigenous people.

 

The negative affects of colonisation continue to have very real impact on the lives of many Indigenous Australians in the form of intergenerational trauma, generational poverty, health disparity, disconnection from culture, disappearance of language, family separation, social discrimination and more. Aboriginal actor and writer, Nakkiah Lui, explains:

“I’m an Aboriginal woman in her 20s… but it’s only four generations back that my family felt the direct consequences of foreigners invading our land. There’s my great-great grandmother, who survived a massacre; my great grandfather, who was forced back to the mission after his father died and wasn’t allowed to own land; my grandfather, who was given “dog tags” dictating he was an “honorary white man” after he returned from being a prisoner of war in World War II; my mother, who was encouraged to not finish high school because she was Aboriginal. This is why, for us, Australia Day is a day of mourning.”  

Invasion Day, Survival Day, Day of Mourning... what's the difference?

Invasion Day 

For those who mark January 26th as ‘Invasion Day’, this date represents the British occupation of Indigenous land. Invasion Day events are held across the country and often include protests and marches rejecting the celebration of Australia Day on this date and calling for sovereignty and social justice for Indigenous Australians.

 

“Australia Day is 26 January, a date whose only significance is to mark the coming to Australia of the white people in 1788. It’s not a date that is particularly pleasing for Aborigines (sic).” Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell (5)

Sturt's party threatened by blacks at the junction of the Murray and Darling, 1830. Painted by J. Macfarlane.

Day of Mourning

Others commemorate January 26th as a day of mourning, recognising the violence of the Frontier Wars, including massacres, rape and murder, as well as trauma caused by government policies of assimilation and separation which removed many people from their lands, families and culture. The first ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ was organised by pioneering Aboriginal rights activist, William Cooper, in 1938, during Sydney’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. Day of Mourning protests have been held on January 26th ever since.

On January 26 Aborigines (sic) from across the country will mourn… We will also call for the race-based celebrations of January 26 to come to a close and for a new date to be chosen, so that we can all proudly wave our flags and celebrate the wonderful country that we now share.” Nala Mansell-McKenna, Aboriginal activist (6)

 

“I refuse to celebrate, and every Australia Day my heart is broken as I am reminded that in the eyes of many, I am not welcome on my own land.”—Nakkiah Lui, Aboriginal actor and writer (7)

Survival Day

Still others celebrate January 26th as Survival Day, an opportunity to recognise the survival of Indigenous people and culture despite colonisation and discrimination. Survival Day events include festivals celebrating Indigenous culture, taking pride in Indigenous achievements and showcasing Indigenous artists and musicians. These events generally have a more positive vibe than Invasion Day and Day of Mourning events.

There’s a saying that white Australia has a black history. It can sort of be taken in the sense that it has been a dark or unfortunate history, but it’s also true in the sense that we were here first. Sometimes people think that Australian started 200 years ago with the invasion.” - Bryan Andy, Aboriginal man (8)

What Now?

So, next time you get asked what you think about Australia Day or Invasion Day, maybe take a moment to reflect on how you can honour the First Peoples of this land during this national public holiday.


Stop & Think...

  • Imagine being told you should celebrate a date that represents heartbreak for you and your family. How might this make you feel?
  • How can we balance celebrating our great nation with acknowledgement and recognition of our nation’s true history?
  • The tension surrounding Australia Day - tension between our nation’s Indigenous heritage, British heritage and modern multicultural society- can raise questions about our national identity. What does Australian identity mean to you?

Want to know more?

Watch Sharing Our Story to learn more about our shared history and the events that have led to the present situation in Australia. 
 

 


References

  1.  National Australia Day Council, Australia Day History 

  2.  National Australia Day Council, Australia Day History 

  3. National Australia Day Council, Celebrate Australia Day Facebook Page 

  4.  Creative Spirits, Australia Day - Invasion Day  

  5. Creative Spirits, Australia Day - Invasion Day

  6.  Creative Spirits, Australia Day - Invasion Day  

  7. Creative Spirits, Australia Day - Invasion Day 

  8. Creative Spirits, Australia Day - Invasion Day

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