Should Australia Day Celebrations Stay On 26 January?

Australia Day, January 26, 2013. In Queensland it’s raining and blowing a gale; we’re experiencing a big wet caused by an ex-tropical cyclone. The weather suits the arrival of the First Fleet into Botany Bay in 1778, a few days before the official invasion began.

Botany Bay didn’t turn out to be the best choice to land 11 ships of the First Fleet. The cove was too narrow. The vessels couldn’t fit between the sharp rocks that littered the entrance, and high winds and rough seas didn’t allow for a safe landing.

So, they moved to Port Arthur and a few days later on 26 January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip, declared the whole east coastal band of Australia as “New Holland” under the dominion of the British Sovereignty.

For many indigenous Australians, especially Torres Strait Islanders and Aborigines, Australia Day is the celebration of the British Invasion. For others, it marks Foundation Day or First Landing Day.

On this day some two hundred years ago, the original inhabitants of Australia and its surrounding Islands were taken over by a few words uttered by Captain Phillip in the name of King George III.

None of the First People of Australia understood what those words meant or what it would herald.

Over 200 hundred years later, I’m uncertain that current generations of Australians understand the making of Australia, or how the “White Australia policy” affects our perceptions. There’s a brief mention of my own experience later, but first Australia Day traditions.

Botany Bay Australia where the First Fleet Arrived a few days before 26 January 1788.
The Shores of Botany Bay
Image Credit: © Leah-Anne Thompson | Adobe Images

Traditional Australian Celebrations

Australia traditionally celebrates today with ticker-tape parades across the country. But “Australia Day 26 January” is not an Australian tradition. It is less than 50-years-old.

While the state of Victoria led the recognition of 26 January as Australia Day in 1930, it wasn’t until 1994 when all states and territories unanimously recognised it as Australia Day. Notably, it was a day marked by protests.

This continent does have a history of celebrating the arrival of the English on its shores.

Emancipated convicts in New South Wales were the first to hold dinners and drinking parties to celebrate their freedom on 26 January.

Thirteen years after the First Fleet’s arrival, Australia had its first public holiday on January 26. But it didn’t become an annual public holiday until 1833 and only for New South Wales.

Meanwhile, South Australia celebrated a different foundation day. Other states, more autonomous and without the construct of a federal constitution struck out on their own.

But it wasn’t the start of the Federation in 1903 that brought Australian’s together for a national holiday. Instead, NADC, a not-for-profit organisation owned by the Australian government, successfully lobbied to turn Australia Day into a national celebration.

Light horse troops march in Melbourne on Australia Day January 26 2019
Australia Day Parade Celebrations
Image Credit: © Zhukovsky |

Australia Day 26 January Confusions

Even our politicians still get confused about the history behind Australia day and the 26 January.

Sometimes, it gets mistaken for the anniversary of the:

  • Discovery of the eastern coast of Australia by Captain Cook (April 1770).
  • Forming of our Constitution (1 January 1901).
  • Sitting of the first Australian parliament (April 1901).
  • Sitting of the first judiciary of the Australian High Court (October 1903).
  • Removal of England’s judiciary power or the Australia Act (3 June 1986).

But the day it actually falls on is the anniversary of the day Captain Phillip set foot on foreign soil. The day he rowed to shore to raise the Union Jack. The day he rejected the First People’s right to this land and announced that this country belonged to England.

However, NADC tries to make Australia Day celebrations appeal to all Australians, even those that came before us. But do the parades, parties, live music and fireworks merely mask the atrocities that began in 1788?

Fireworks behind the Australian Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, a popular attraction on Australia Day.
Fireworks over the Opera House in Sydney
Image Credit: MartinaFotos | Pixabay

So, what else do we celebrate on Australia Day?

Aside from Captain Phillip’s landing and the raising of the Union Jack, Australia Day is about celebrating what it means to be Australian by all Australian people.

For our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, that’s around 65,000 years of history.

For European settlers, it’s around 200 years of Australian policy and laws favouring white people. And while the “White Australia policy” was enshrined in law by our first Australian parliament in December 1901. It began with the arrival of the First Fleet.

The reduction of non-white people in Australia didn’t just target Asians or other non-white immigrants. It was also aimed at Aboriginals which the Australian Consitution separated from other Australians.

Despite some changes to the wording by referendum in the late 1960s, our Constitution still does not view the First People of Australia as equals. Nor does it acknowledge them as the original people of our stolen lands.

Aboriginal performers
Australian Aborigines Perform for Tourists
Image Credit: © Takeapicture |

Australian heritage and education

Like many Australians, I grew up during the push to end the White Australia policy.

While Harold Holt and Golf Whitlam introduced new multicultural overtones to Australian politics, the ideology of White Australia lived on in my upbringing and education.

I’ve since shed these teachings, but I still regret my part in perpetuating them. I was taught to:

  • Be proud of my English heritage and English occupation of Australia, except for any connections to convicts.
  • Regard Australian Aborigines as stone-age people pushed into the 20th century where they were unable to keep up.
  • Be suspicious of multiculturism.

When querying my mother’s side of the family, the hint of Aboriginal connections arose.

“Don’t go digging into your Grandmother’s past,” I was warned. So far the digging (and not much of it), leads back towards the Portuguese.

It isn’t where I’m from that strikes me most about my desire to know about my origins. But how I was made to feel ashamed of the possibility that my Grandmother was Aboriginal or that I was the product of Irish convicts, five generations removed.

It was something my father’s and mother’s generations didn’t want to speak about.

So, am I like many other Australians meant to be proud of my heritage? Or are we meant to obfuscate it in favour of our European gentry connections and supposed freedoms granted with the federation of Australia?

I can sympathise with the convicts who stood in chains waiting to touch Australian soil. Quite a few, like my Great Great Great Grandparents, were sentenced for stealing little more than a handkerchief or blanket.

But the victims of 26 January 1778 weren’t the convicts brought to reshape, brand and populate this continent in England’s name. It was the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders who were enslaved, and in some cases, entire tribes hunted into extinction.

So, how does the last fifty years of recent history with our multicultural placards wipe away the shame of our occupation?

Australia Day Parade – multicultural diversity on display
Credit: © Graeme Raftery |

Contemporary policy reflects White Australia

Benjamin Jones published an article on White Australia policy on the SBS website in 2017. It dismisses a return to white-based policies. But across the world, in Amsterdam, one of the world’s most multicultural-tolerant countries, the Christian-right grows popular.

Anti-immigration slogans and policies seem to be a popular choice.

In Australia, the current government plays with similar policies.

Jones’ article mentions:

  • Offshore processing of refugees.
  • The support for right-wing political figures like Pauline Hanson who openly display racist attitudes.
  • Refusal to accept asylum seekers.

But his story bypasses Australia’s preference for Christian refugees from countries where Muslims dominate. Over the last couple of years, this has seen a dramatic bias appear in religion and ethnicity immigration statistics and a reduction in immigration numbers.

And over the last year, the current government continues to ignore indigenous recognition and protests. More recently, the government rejected the Uluru statement and a call for an indigenous voice in parliament.

The way the Australian government continues to treat immigration, refugees and the First People of Australia signifies that the White Australia policy still influences Australia’s political system.

And all these anti-multiculturalism and pro-white, Christian-right attitudes make it difficult to feel Australia Day is anything more than a means to defuse Australia’s dark history.

Aboriginal Embassy a symbol of protest of the invasion of Australia and White Australia Policy.
Aboriginal “Tent Embassy” set up in protest of Australia’s occupation
Image Credit: 1343024 | Pixabay

Majority Australians want to keep Australia Day on January 26

The headlines boast of a majority for Australia Day on January 26, but the numbers and sample size of these surveys are never as robust as the statements make them out to be.

In the latest polling from January 2019, conducted by right-wing think tank IPA, 59% strongly agreed with keeping Australia Day on the 26 January.

Downloadable data for the IPA poll does not declare the number surveyed (with different websites providing a different sample number), nor the margin or error. IPA (who organised the survey) state the sample size as a thousand, while provide a number close to eighteen hundred.

The poll was also conducted two weeks out from Australia Day.

And Australian’s do love their public holidays, especially when it turns into a long weekend.

Australia has seven national holidays with every state adding one or two more. Buoyed by New Year celebrations and back to school sentiment, January 26 is a good time for one more beer and one more BBQ before the year begins in earnest.

Man-made beach in South Bank in Brisbane, Australia filled with families enjoying the pools in front of  the city backdrop.
South Bank, Brisbane a popular attraction on public holidays.
Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

Some Australians take Australia Day seriously

There are many Aussies who view Australia Day as a serious social custom.

After the fanfare of the parades, they sport thongs, dungarees or shorts with bathers or singlets to meet-up with friends down at the local park. With a friendly game of cricket on the cards, they fight over public BBQs and picnic tables.

Though many Australians still prefer a traditional backyard party. It often comes with its own BBQ, pool and a stocked esky holding Australia’s traditional beer, XXXX, locally brewed but now owned by a consortium of Japanese.

There might even be a few huge traditional earth ovens in places with no fire ban or fear of rising rivers.

One thing Australian’s do take seriously is their humour. And it wouldn’t be Australia Day without an advert about mutton dressed as lamb.

Of course, not everyone gets to have a public holiday on Australia Day. Some Australians choose to work reaping in extra penalty rates for the public holiday.

The Australian Constitution is unfinished business

When it comes to representing a day for all Australian’s, it’s important to note the unfinished business of the Australian Constitution and the Australia Act.

The Australia Act

Proclaimed on 3rd March 1986, the Australian Act is a document bringing together our loving, caring, compassionate “Christian” ideals.

It provides us with an important, decent just, and fair dink-um Aussie document making the Queen of Australia (IE Queen of England), our sovereign. And it also removes the judiciary powers of Britain altogether from future decisions. 

Meanwhile, Britain holds a different copy of the Act which doesn’t necessarily grant Australia the same rights.

Australia Day’s Celebration of Democratic Freedom

When the Australian Constitution first came into force in 1901, instead of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders it discriminated against them.

On 27 May 1967, Australian’s went to the polls. The vote aimed to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders the right to be counted in the Australian census as citizens and to allow the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal people.

While these laws removed some discriminatory wording, it did not go far enough to remove all of it. Nor did it recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Instead, it allows different laws to be made affecting only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

And while the various Governments since the start of the 21 Century have spoken about a new referendum to make these changes, it hasn’t happened.

Colonialism remains strong in Australia.

Captain Arthur Phillip, First Fleet of Australia
Section of a painting of Captain Arthur Phillip of the First Fleet to Australia.
Image Credit: Artist, Francis Wheatley| Photographer Creative Commons on Find a Grave

Why move Australia Day?

Let’s be honest. Australia’s history isn’t pretty.

Sure we can be proud of how far our Nation has come in such a short period. For the most part, our economy seems to keep turning with free education and health. We’re a nation of rich cultures, advanced technologies, and an improving legal system. Plus, there’s the feel of multiculturalism.

But our road to get here hasn’t been a road paved with silver linings.

Instead, our history is one of racism, denigration and subjugation. And while it’s improved, it hasn’t yet gone far enough.

Can we really celebrate a nation for all people if our Constitution, the very legal document that makes us who we are, doesn’t reflect it?

Instead of celebrating the arrival of the tall ships and how proud we are to be Australian on the 26 January, it should be a day of recognition. A day where we reflect on Australia’s real history without the victory celebration.

26 January doesn’t call for a party. It’s a bleak day for many indigenous people of Australia.

While there have been small steps towards reconciliation, more needs to be done. I’m not sure if any day is really suitable, not yet, we’ve still got far to go. But there are other days with more uplifting stories, than those that tell the story of an invasion.

Invasion Day Protesters in Melbourne in 2018
Invasion Day Protests, Melbourne 2018
Image Credit: © David Hewison |

At Jacmus, we want to know your thoughts on Australia Day

Do you agree or disagree with my sentiments?

I’d like to open this question up to you. If you’re Australian, here or abroad, would you prefer to celebrate Australia Day on a day that unifies all Australians or divides?

Take our Australia Day survey or leave a question or comment below.

Updates and revisions:

I originally wrote this article on Australia Day 26 January 2013. I’ve since revised it significantly. The original post made fun of Australia Day “traditions”. However, the topic deserved a more thoughtful response. It had significant updates and was re-published on 14 August 2019. Changes include recent statistics, a closer examination of the White Australia policy and other legislation, new images and a survey added to garnish your opinion.

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