Australia Day – what’s all the fuss about?

It’s an issue that seems is being raised every January with more frequency and more discussion in latest years than ever before. Should we change the date or not? What’s all the fuss about? 

In 1994, January 26 became an Australia-wide public holiday (Marlow, 2016; Fozdar and Spittles, 2015). January 26 was chosen as the date for this celebration of Australia, in commemoration of raising of the Union Jack in Port Jackson (now Sydney Cove) in 1788, claiming the land in the name of King George III and declaring British dominion and claim over Australia (Marlow, 2016; Pearson and Verass, 2017; Fozdar and Spittles, 2015; Charles, 2019; Jenkins, 2016). It is a well-accepted fact that this is the significance of January 26 – that the unfurling of the flag was a clear claim to the land, considered to be Australia’s ‘beginning’. Just over 230 years later, on this date Australia is celebrated with barbecues, fireworks, alcohol, flags on cars and other frivolity (Fozdar and Spittles, 2015). 

However, recently there has been much more opposition to the day, with the popular hashtag, #changethedate. Cricket Australia, a sport often seen as synonymous with what some call Australian culture, recommended that clubs not call the day ‘Australia Day’ (ABC News). The City of Fremantle has since 2017 not hosted any fireworks on January 26, and held free concerts on 28 January instead, with performances from Indigenous and non-indigenous artists (Wainwright, 2017b; Jenkins, 2016). This was not without controversy (Wainwright, 2017b), despite the fact that at the time most local governments don’t host any Australia Day celebrations (Wainwright, 2017a). This year, ABC news gave its reporters the freedom to call January 26 “Invasion Day”, “26 January”, or “Survival Day” – while stating Australia Day is the preferred phrase (PerthNow, 2021). On the other hand, if you listen to free Spotify, you’ll hear incredibly frequent airing of an advertisement encouraging all Australians to celebrate Australia Day on January 26.

So, why all that fuss over a day?

Because while this day might symbolise patriotism to some Australians, to our First Nations inhabitants it is often remembered as ‘Survival Day’ or ‘Invasion Day’ (Fozdar and Spittles, 2015). Michael Dodson, former Australian of the Year commented on the lack of acknowledgement about the impact of the First Fleet’s arrival on Aboriginal Australia (ABC News). For First Nations Australians, the ‘unfurling of the Union Jack’ on January 26, 1788, is the day they officially lost their countries – igniting 230 years of trauma and stripping of identity by government policy (Marlow, 2016). It is often a day of mourning – mourning dispossession, massacres, imprisonment for merely existing, and enslavement (Marlow, 2016). Further, January 26 has been associated with aggressive racism, and increased ‘exclusionary nationalism’ – an academic term that refers to things such as those bumper stickers with the Australian flag superimposed with slogans such as, “F*#k off, we’re full”, or, “Fit in or F*#k off” (Fozdar and Spittles, 2015). 

Australia is the only nation in the world that celebrates its national day on the day of the invasion of colonisers; most mark their days of independence, or days that represent the greater freedoms achieved for all inhabitants (Marlow, 2016; Wainwright, 2017a). January 26 represents the loss of freedom, culture, rights, and countless lives, to Aboriginal people. Even Henry Parkes, the Premier of New South Wales in 1888, recognised this when he was questioned about not organising official ‘100 year-anniversary’ events, retorting, “And remind them that we have robbed them?” (Pearson and Verass, 2017). Yet some people advocate the idea that Aboriginal Australians should just ‘get over it’. Nova Perris, a speaker on The Point, responded to this, saying, 

“When people tell us to get over this [sic] 230-years, it’s because it’s an uncomfortable truth. … People say, ‘oh just get over the past’, no, what you’re actually saying is get over the history that has had a massive impact on the inter-generational lives of Aboriginal people.” (Jenkins, 2020)

In truth, we cannot change what has happened in the past, and changing the date doesn’t change the past (Wainwright, 2017a). However, in acknowledging the past, and listening to those who have been impacted by Australia’s painful history, we can come to fuller unity as a nation. 

Imagine you are married, but your spouse had an affair. That affair has hurt you and harmed your relationship with your spouse. Now imagine your spouse not only wants you to ‘forget about it’, but they also want you to go out for drinks with them and the person they had an affair with, on the anniversary of that affair. This is akin to what First Nations people hear when they are told, “Get over the past. Celebrate on January 26.” Many models for relational reconciliation and restorative justice models usually require that those who have caused harm to acknowledge the harm they have caused. This discussion is more of the same.

Personally, I used to celebrate Australia Day. I enjoyed many barbecues and fireworks. I remember feeling that these were the fun parts of Australia Day. But I had no idea that First Nations Australians feel the way they do on January 26. I don’t quite remember what it was that changed my mind, but I remember coming to the realisation of what celebrating on that day really means. I sincerely hope Australia recognises this too, but I hope more than that we start deeply listening to our First Nations people, and acknowledging their pain.

References

ABC news (22 Jan, 2021). Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s views on Australia Day ‘selfish’ and ‘lightweight’, Michael Dodson says. Retrieved 25/1/2021 from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-01-22/scott-morrison-australia-day-comments-lightweight-michael-dodson/13081530?utm_medium=content_shared&utm_source=abc_news_amp&utm_campaign=abc_news_amp&utm_content=facebook&__FB_PRIVATE_TRACKING__=%7B%22loggedout_browser_id%22%3A%220fba72947f823c4d9dd5ed9005c107801d7dd81e%22%7D&fbclid=IwAR1PkgQRD-EbPGtNPyrwXvuntW4YhJ6NFWwF99FVMD8TPS1J7VA0TWuBqCU

Charles, C. (2019). The colonisation of Australia. Is Australia Day commemorated on the wrong day? Bulletin (Law Society of South Australia), 41(3), 34–35.

Fozdar, F., Spittles, B., & Hartley, L. K. (2015). Australia Day, flags on cars and Australian nationalism. Journal of Sociology, 51(2), 317-336.

Jenkins, C. (2016). Fremantle moves Australia day. Green Left Weekly1121, 3.

Jenkins, K. (2020). ‘This country is confused’: The Point asks who are we? Retrieved 25/1/2021 from: https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2020/01/22/country-confused-point-asks-who-are-we

Marlow, K. (20 Jan 2016). Australia Day, Invasion Day, Survival Day: What’s in a name? Retrieved 25/1/2021, from: https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/explainer/australia-day-invasion-day-survival-day-whats-name?fbclid=IwAR3i2yBqbxNyfzj0IvIY1rBsRLTCxaHHIkms5jCzSN-ar50v2vq5xATrU6c

Pearson,L. and Verass, S (20 Jan, 2017). 10 things you should know about January 26. Retrieved 25/1/2021, from: https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2017/01/18/10-things-you-should-know-about-january-26-nitv

PerthNow (24 Jan, 2021). Australian Broadcasting Corporation gives reporters green light to call January 26 ‘Invasion Day’. Retrieved 25/1/2021, from: https://www.perthnow.com.au/news/australia/australian-broadcasting-corporation-gives-reporters-green-light-to-call-january-26-invasion-day-ng-b881777722z?fbclid=IwAR3EuL2-1Vq1CI0EyUYfCG9oHGG8DJynhEe4U9ybSGDoftYNILEVjFXsLdY

Wainwright, S. (2017). Australia day – change the date. Green Left Weekly1122, 5.

Wainwright, S. (2017). Australia day versus truth and justice. Green Left Weekly1150, 5.

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