January 26th is Australia’s national day. The name “Australia Day” was adopted nationally in 1935, and it wasn’t until 1994 that the date became a national public holiday. It is controversial and there is growing public support for change.
The Background to January 26th
Celebrating Australia’s national day on January 26th carries on an older tradition from New South Wales. It celebrates the day in 1788 when the Commander of the First Fleet, Captain Arthur Phillip, who arrived on the continent at Botany Bay a week earlier, reached Sydney Cove, raised the Union Jack, claimed the land for King George III and established the convict colony of New South Wales.
For the Indigenous peoples of Australia, this claim to their traditional lands marked the start of colonisation. The arrival of the British resulted in more than just a loss of land, “newly introduced diseases spread among the Aborigines, the birth rate dropped, the Aboriginal population declined markedly” (source, page 8). There were also as many as 500 massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, often the state was involved, condoned the action or turned a blind eye. A recent article in The Guardian says at least 270 of the massacres were “part of a state-sanctioned and organised attempt to eradicate Aboriginal people”.
Celebration and Commemoration
Commemoration events have added insult to injury. On the 100th anniversary the Premier of NSW, Henry Parkes, was asked if Aboriginal people would be part of the celebration, he retorted, ‘And remind them that we have robbed them?’ Aboriginal people were banned from the opening of the Centennial Parklands, a key part of the 100th anniversary. For the 150th anniversary in 1938, after Aboriginal people from Sydney refused to take part in a re-enactment, Aboriginal men from western New South Wales were brought in. The National Museum of Australia explains how they were “locked up at the Redfern Police Barracks stables until the re-enactment took place… Film footage of the re-enactment clearly shows that the men were not willing participants”. The 200th anniversary featured a re-enactment, this time limited to the First Fleet sailing into Sydney Harbour. Indigenous people were ignored in the planning and nature of the anniversary.
The pushback from Indigenous Australians today includes the Change the Date campaign and instead commemorating January 26th as a solemn day, rather than a celebratory one, a day known as Invasion Day, Survival Day, and a Day of Mourning. On the 150th anniversary in 1938, the Day of Mourning was declared at the first national gathering of Indigenous people to protest against racism and discrimination. A protest planned for the 200th anniversary called the day “Invasion Day”. It took place in the middle of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and over 40,000 Indigenous people and supporters joined the protest march. Commemoration events continue each year and are growing with over 100,000 people taking part last year and a range of events planned for this year around the country.
Also caught up on January 26th are those who have migrated to Australia. Many become Australians at citizenship ceremonies that take place on January 26th. Last year the elected councillors on a number of councils voted to hold their citizenship ceremonies on another date. The Federal Government stepped in to prevent this with new laws taking away the right to hold citizenship ceremonies from councils that refused to hold one on Australia Day.
The Far Right
On January 26 in 2011, Professor Farida Fozdar and her team from the University of Western Australia surveyed 513 people attending the Australia Day fireworks on Perth’s Swan River foreshore and found a link between racist attitudes and the flying of an Australian flag on one’s car for Australia Day.
According to the research: 43% of those with car flags were favourable to the White Australia Policy, compared to 25% of those without. 56% of those with car flags expressed a fear that Australian culture was under threat, compared to 34% of those without. 35% of those with car flags felt one had to be born in Australia to be truly Australian, compared to 22% of those without. 23% of those with car flags felt one had to be Christian to be truly Australian, compared to 18% of those without. Their work empirically demonstrated the presence of a number of negative attitudes towards minority groups and highlighted a link between the use of the Australian flag and a higher likelihood of holding such attitudes.
Since then we have seen a rise in the far right and their overt efforts to co-opt not only the flag, but what it means to be Australian. Each Australia Day, as the flags come out, there has been a surge in the promotion of such attitudes. This has led to racism against both Indigenous Australians and our new Australians who have migrated here from across the world.
Our Message for Today
This is the first Australia Day since a white nationalist Australian tragically killed 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch last March. The response to that attack has been a greater awareness of the danger of far-right extremism by governments and technology companies.
In the past we have used this day to promote a message of Australian values including multiculturalism and a fair go, as well as opposition to rising far-right extremism. We have also shared the Indigenous perspective and encouraged supporters to learn more about it. We have also shared the importance of being Australian to those who have migrated here and become Australians by choice.
This year, above and through the related links, we’ve shared much more of the history as it has impacted Indigenous Australians. This is a history we all need to know much more about. We are also on this say announcing the details of our campaign plan for the year. This includes a focused campaign in March on online racism targeting Indigenous Australians which will build on our past work in this space. Each of our monthly campaigns include opportunities for volunteers to get involved and help make a better Australia.
Let’s use today to pause, learn, reflect and grow closer as we think not only of the Australia we know, but the one we want for the future.