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Australia Day: Should We Change the Date?

Written by Fernanda Dahlstrom

Fernanda Dahlstrom holds a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts. She also completed a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice at the College of Law in Victoria. Fernanda practiced law for eight years, working in criminal defence, child protection and domestic violence law in the Northern Territory. She also practiced in family law after moving to Brisbane in 2016. Fernanda has strong interests in Indigenous and refugee law, human rights and law reform.

On 26 January, Australia will celebrate Australia Day. The date on which Australia Day is celebrated has been the subject of increasing controversy, with many people feeling that the chosen date is offensive to Aboriginal people and divides, rather than unifies, the community.

26 January has been a national public holiday since 1994.

What happened on 26 January?

On 26 January 1788, the 1,400 people on the first fleet arrived in Sydney Cove. The first fleet had docked at Botany Bay a week earlier, but relocated in search of a more suitable place to set up a colony. On 26 January, the Union Jack was raised and British sovereignty declared, marking the beginning of colonisation. At the time an estimated 750,000 Aboriginal people were living in the country, which was nevertheless regarded as terra nullius, belonging to no one.

1938 protest

On 26th January 1938, a meeting, followed by a march and protest was held by Aboriginal Australian in Sydney. The protest marked 150 years since the seizure of the country by the British and the attendees protested their cruel treatment and requested full citizenship and equality. Citizenship was eventually granted to Aboriginal people in 1967, after a referendum.

Criticisms of Australia Day

The date of January 26th has been criticised as inappropriate for a day of national celebration as it is a day associated with loss and mourning for Aboriginal Australians and many non-Aboriginal Australians who support them. For Aboriginal Australians, the date marks the beginning of displacement, discrimination and the gradual erosion of traditional languages and culture. The date lacks legitimacy as a day of celebration for many people and is commonly referred to as Invasion Day or Survival Day.

It has been pointed out as an irony that Australia Day celebrates the arrival of unannounced visitors by boat, which has been condemned as illegal and un-Australian by successive governments, which have enacted progressively harsher border protection measures including indefinite offshore detention and eventual resettlement in a third country.

26th January has also been criticised as an inaccurate date for Australia Day, as no Australia existed on 26 January 1788. The declaration of British sovereignty on that date marked the birth of the colony of New South Wales, with the state of Australia only coming into existence on 1 January 1901.

A public poll found that 49% of Australian think that Australia day should not be held on a day that offends Aboriginal people.

Support for Australia Day

The National Australia Day Council says the day is a day ‘for all Australians, no matter where our personal stories began (to) reflect on being Australian, celebrate contemporary Australia and recognise our history.’ Thousands of people become Australian citizens at ceremonies around the country on 26 January each year.

Successive Prime Ministers have defended the date, saying there is no more important date in the history of the nation.

Some groups and individuals who support Indigenous rights oppose changing the date, saying such a move would be an empty, symbolic gesture and that more important changes, such as a treaty, constitutional recognition, self-determination and ‘closing the gap’ ought to be prioritised.

Alternative dates

Various alternative dates have been put forward as candidates for Australia Day, including 1st of January, the day federation occurred in 1901. Other suggestions have been 25th April, ANZAC Day, which commemorates the landing of Australian troops at Gallipoli and is a popular day of celebration, particularly for younger Australians.

The 3rd December, the date of the Eureka Stockade, when gold miners rose up against oppressive colonial taxation, has also been suggested. The anniversary of the date Kevin Rudd formally apologised to the stolen generations (February 13th) has also been suggested as has the anniversary of the 1967 referendum that resulted in Aboriginal people gaining citizenship (May 27) and the anniversary of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (13 September).

Government response

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the date of Australia Day should not change.

When a local council expressed its opposition to the date by moving its festivities to another date, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull punished it by stripping it of its right to hold citizenship ceremonies.

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