For many people, Australia Day is about celebrating the values, freedoms and pastimes of this country. It’s a time for BBQs in the backyard, having a beer with mates and proudly flying the flag. On the surface, Australia Day seems to be about unifying all people who call Australia home, and yet ironically, it’s a divisive day for some people. 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 January 26, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia. On that day in 1788, 11 convict ships from Great Britain landed at what is now Port Jackson in New South Wales, where Governor Arthur Phillip raised the British flag to signal the beginning of the British colony. Since the early days of the British colony, Sydney has marked January 26 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 focused 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. 
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 it means to be Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia and to acknowledge our history”. 
Why is there tension surrounding Australia Day?
For many First Nations people, January 26 isn’t a day for celebrating. First Nations people may be just as proud of this country, but many people see January 26 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 people (including many First Nations people) refer to January 26 by names such as Invasion Day, Survival Day and Day of Mourning.
Should we change the date, save the date or cancel it all together?
This question can be challenging, as there are many different perspectives from both First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians. Saving the date means continuing to celebrate a date that’s painful for many people. Changing the date or cancelling the date doesn’t address the trauma and disadvantage that started at colonisation and still affects First Nations people today.
If we simply make a choice and move on, we miss the opportunity to understand where we’ve come from, where we are today and where we go from here.
Learning more about our nation’s shared history between First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians can help you answer this question for yourself.
Are you a teacher? This guide can help you plan a lesson about Australia Day.
Can’t we all just celebrate being Australian?
You may have heard it said (or even wondered yourself), “Why are First Nations 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 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 January 26 can divide us, by marginalising and offending many First Nations people who see this date as commencing a chain of events that had disastrous consequences for many First Nations people.
The negative effects of colonisation continue to have very real impact on the lives of many First Nations people in the form of intergenerational trauma, generational poverty, health disparity, disconnection from culture, disappearance of language, family separation, social discrimination and more. Nakkiah Lui, Gamillaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman, actor and writer, 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.” 
Explore the Pride and Pain timeline. An interactive look at some key points in Australia's history.
Invasion Day, Survival Day, Day of Mourning ... what's the difference?
“There’s a saying that white Australia has a black history. It can 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 Australia started 200 years ago with the invasion.”
Bryan Andy, Yorta Yorta 
For those who mark January 26 as ‘Invasion Day’, this date represents the British occupation of First Nations People’s 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 First Nations people.
“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.” Michael Mansell, Aboriginal activist 
Day of Mourning
Other people commemorate January 26 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 26 ever since.
“On January 26 Aborigines 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, Palawa activist, Lutruwita/Tasmania 
“… 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, Gamillaroi/Torres Strait Islander woman, actor and writer 
Some First Nations people celebrate January 26 as Survival Day, an opportunity to recognise the survival of First Nations people and culture despite colonisation and discrimination. Survival Day events include festivals celebrating First Nations culture, taking pride in First Nations people’s achievements and showcasing artists and musicians. These events generally have a more positive atmosphere than Invasion Day and Day of Mourning events.
Are you looking for Professional Learning to help you incorporate this in the classroom?Access here
- 1. National Australia Day Council (n.d.) Australia Day [website], accessed 30 August 2021.
- 2. National Australia Day Council (n.d.) About, Australia Day [website], accessed 30 August 2021.
- 3. Lui N (26 January 2014) 'Australia Day is a time for mourning, not celebration', The Guardian, accessed 30 August 2021.
- 4. Bell S (26 January 2021) ‘Position Statement – January 26’, Queensland Advocacy Incorporated, accessed 30 August 2021.
- 5. Mansell M (29 October 2013) 'Why I turned down an Australia Day award', The Guardian, accessed 30 August 2021.
- 6. ABC News (26 January 2007) 'Aborigines protest against "racist" Australia Day', ABC News, accessed 30 August 2021.
- 7. Lui N (26 January 2014) 'Australia Day is a time for mourning, not celebration', The Guardian, accessed 30 August 2021.