According to the Australia Day website:
“The tradition of having Australia Day as a national holiday on 26 January is a recent one. Not until 1935 did all the Australian states and territories use that name to mark that date. Not until 1994 did they begin to celebrate Australia Day consistently as a public holiday on that date.”
That means that the Day of Mourning (1938) is only 3 years younger than ‘Australia Day’ as we know it today, and everyone having Australia Day on the 26th of January has happened notably less times than I have celebrated my birthday.
It’s worth noting that it was on the third ever national ‘Australia Day’ that a notable Indigenous protest was created. A protest that has never dissipated in the decades that followed. The most media attention that these protests ever gained was in 1988, the infamous Bicentennial, where the phrase ‘White Australia has a Black History” entered our collective consciousness, but they have always been there in one form or another, whether they are noticed by media or not. Though it has been a staple of Australian media in recent decades to run a few stories acknowledging the existence of Indigenous people protesting Australia Day in one form or another (this year it was the Lamb ad and the Aussiebum undies ordeal – so far), but that’s about it.
Even in 1938, on the first Day of Mourning, Australia Day was referred to as the “anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country”, and nothing about that sentiment has really changed that much in the decades that followed. It is the plain and simple truth of what the 26th of January represents, regardless of how you phrase it.
The Australia Day website also claims that “On Australia Day we come together as a nation to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian.” What’s so great about the 26th of January that it would make us “come together as a nation”? What about that day says “what’s great about Australia and being Australia”?
If we want to see Australia as a colonial outpost for the British then maybe that day makes sense, but if we want to regard Australia as a ‘vibrant multicultural nation’, and if we want to regard Indigenous peoples as a core part of the modern Australian identity then it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to have Australia Day on that date.
A common alternative that people suggest is Federation which will never happen, mostly because it is on the 1st of January, but even if it wasn’t is that really a day that would inspire us all want to ‘come together as a nation’? The first act that was passed after Federation was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, commonly referred to as the White Australia Policy.
Wouldn’t the day that Australia abolished this act and, on paper at least, welcomed non-white migrants into Australia make more sense as a day to celebrate ‘what is great about Australia and being Australian’. Wouldn’t that send a better message to everyone that Australia Day is a day intended for ALL Australians to celebrate?
Australia has only had 21 years of holding Australia Day on the 26th of January, surely that isn’t too many years to acknowledge that it was a poor choice and move it to a better day.
Most people don’t even care about that actual date, they just want a day of work, or to have a few drinks, or to have a barbecue, or to wear a flag cape, or whatever it is that people do. None of those things can only be done on the 26th of January, and if it was on any other day then maybe more Indigenous people would feel like celebrating with the rest of the nation.
The 26th of January is a day that will always live in infamy. It is not that a date that will ever be forgotten. It will always be Invasion Day, Survival Day, a Day of Mourning. It will always be the day that the First (not really) Fleet came to Australia. It will always be a day of protest for as long as there are things that need to be protested against.
The unfortunate reality for the Australia Day Council, and for the rest of the nation, is that this isn’t an issue that is ever going to go away. The only way to aspire towards a day where we can ‘come together as a nation’ is to change the date. There is literally no other way.
Even then, it won’t make it a perfect day where we will all hold hands and sing “We are the voice”, but at least you could make a decent case for the idea that it is a day created for such a lofty purpose as ‘celebrating what is great about Australia and being Australian.’
Changing the date would show that we have aspirations for this country to become greater than it is. Our treatment of Indigenous peoples, of asylum seekers, of the homeless, of the unemployed, of women, of veterans, of pensioners (the list goes on and on) is not great. It is not something that is worth celebrating, and there is nothing about the arrival of the First Fleet that gives pause to reflect on what it would take to become great. Maybe that is why the day is filled with little more than jingoistic flag waving and mass consumption of alcohol, to distract us from the fact that we aren’t as great a country as some would otherwise like to think.
Maybe then we might see people who aren’t fascists and racists declaring themselves ‘patriots’.
This is a critical time in Australian history. It is a time when we are seeing rights and freedoms for all except the wealthiest Australians (and foreign companies) removed. We are seeing the modest improvements in Indigenous rights eroded and dismantled. To change this we need a lot more than just changing the date of Australia Day, but to change this we might need a catalyst. Not a symbolic gesture of empty emotions, but an evocative and confrontational (for some) wake up call. A catalyst for debate, an opportunity for change. A catalyst that will make us pause, reflect upon, and discuss what sort of country we have been, where we are today, and where we want to be in the future.
There is no greater opportunity for that conversation than one simple question: What date should Australia Day be held on?
The answer will tell us all we need to know about how ‘great a country Australia is’.