Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Lamisa.H, Jessica L. and Palwasha A.
Australia Day has always been a confusing tradition. Throughout the last 232 years since colonisation, there has never been a consensus on how the day should or should not be celebrated.
The government's campaign pitch for this year, “Australia Day, celebrate your way” is even more confusing. Celebrate your way! Embrace our melting pot culture by watching the fireworks decked out in the red, blue and white flag or by joining the Survival Day protests. Whatever floats your boat! We understand what the campaign is trying to do here; it's an attempt to encompass the wide-spanning perspectives that create Australian identity. History cannot be simplified into catchy lines and slogans, and neither can our country's identity.
Modern Australia effectively started on that day [26th Jan]. You can't change that. That's just what happened. -Scott Morrison, 2018
It's emblematic of the same systemic racism that would allow a nation's national day to be held on the day of the country's colonisation, rather than its independence, or a multitude of other landmark occasions. It is an eye-opening reminder that attempting to pretty-up an already ugly event is an insult rather than progress, and that we need an inclusive vision of Australian identity, with the original custodians of the land at the forefront of the conversation.
The date of January 26th is significant because it marks the First Fleet's arrival in 1788, making this the date that "modern Australia began." Australia Day is founded on the triumph of the coloniser, and our inability to reconcile with our First Nations people has left us failing to uphold vital human rights. Instead of changing the date, modern solutions have characterised the day as two-fold; Australians are expected to lament during the day and rejoice during the night - tossing up between calling it 'Straya Day' or 'Survival Day.' There are not that many hours in the day to live this many versions of history. Stan Grant, author of the book Australia Day says that this dissonance is the essence of our Australian identity, and what in turn defines our national day. Watch this interview for a full breakdown:
What should it mean to be Australian? The only way to unite our country is if we deconstruct Australian history by relearning it through the lens of the First Nations people, make sense of what is happening right now in our society, and start critically redefining what it means to be an Australian in 2020.
The Invention of Australia Day
The nation of Australia was not founded for any compelling reason like its other colonial-settler country friends. It was never intended to be a settler colony, but a penal one i.e. a free-range jail cell.
Another interesting thing to remember is that Australia Day hasn’t even always been celebrated on the same day. The first ‘Australia Day’ in 1818 was more of an NSW day, as Governor Macquarie made it an official public holiday one year after the land was renamed Australia. In the meantime, Australians were still British subjects and the Aboriginal people were not considered people, let alone the original custodians of the land. South Australia celebrated their 'founding day' on the 28th of December until 1910.
It was only in 1935 that all our states and territories came to the agreement that they would celebrate Australia Day on the 26th of January, and it was only officially celebrated as a national holiday in 1994! That is less than 25 years ago. So, let’s not pretend that the day is an ancient entrenched tradition that we are bound to.
In a NY Times article, Waleed Aly writes that this could actually be our advantage as a nation, rather than a lack of direction:
Australian-ness is forever being amended, negotiated, broadened. It is a country that continues to remake itself, less encumbered by the weight of its traditions. That might be a remarkable trait for running a society. But it turns out it’s an awful one for establishing a national day.
For the first 150 years, 'Australia day' was celebrated in the most British way possible with commemorative gunshots and celebratory drinking. A "young" nation wholeheartedly standing by their British roots, history and culture. Yet like an angsty teenager, Australia began to develop an identity crisis under the governance of Mama Brit.
We needed something so desperately 'purely Australian,' that a fake speech from Captain Arthur Philip surfaced and was recorded as history.
“It may be that this country will become the most valuable acquisition Britain has ever made. It is, therefore, appropriate that I should express the vision which comes to me of a city stupendous in area and population, and this magnificent harbour visited by merchantmen of all sizes, designs and nationalities, bringing goods for the growing population in this land and taking away the surplus produce of its soil’”
There was no evidence or mention of this in any of the published biographies of Philip, or recordings of that day. Was fake news used to build a national identity?
Determined to better understand what the conversation was at the time, our writer Palwasha took a trip to the state library with a free membership card and uncovered all the digitised newspaper archives on Australia Day that she could find. What she found was shocking:
“In my research I went back as early as the 1800's, to find out when and how Australia Day was invented. As I read through article after article that mentioned a national day of celebration for Australia, I became more and more shocked at the complete lack of mention of Aboriginals. In keeping with the attitude of the times, I expected to read language degrading their presence but was shocked to find that there was not a single mention of them throughout any of the articles. To read the discussion around a national day of celebration for Australia, you wouldn't know that anyone other than settlers existed in the country. The language of the articles were obsessed with forming an identity seperate from Britain and protecting "their new nation" from invasion (ironic). Reading the articles, you could see how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were written off in their own stories and in their own history. I urge everyone to go through some of these articles because what I found was truly disturbing.”
Give us more action, and less talk
We mourn whilst the rest of the country celebrates around us - Nakkiah Lui, a Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander writer and actress
To this day, Australia has not officially recognised Aboriginal people in the constitution. The official constitution still allows for racial discrimination. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was drafted in order to amend this but was rejected by the Turnbull government in 2017. With every year that passes it is becoming strikingly clear that one side of history is favoured more than the other.
Karen Wyld - author, writer and consultant of Martu descent wrote the following:
The Great Forgetting is the part of the story in which we now find ourselves: government, media and white academia control the narrative and whitewash history.
Through putting social pressure on migrants and their descendants to assimilate, the settler-colonisation minimalises unrest. And if anyone questions the narrative, then they are divisive. Un-Australian. They are just told to go back to where they came from.
Of course, First Peoples aren’t to go back to where they come from. No, we must move on. Forget 230 years of violence, loss & grief, theft, and inequities – just be quiet.
To those of us who are culturally and linguistically diverse, we have the luxury of treating this day simply as a holiday, a day to spend with our family. We are maybe comfortable saying that we did not partake in creating the system that oppresses Aboriginal People. So therefore, we can choose to celebrate the diversity, unity and luxurious aspects of Australia, right? This is really what the “celebrate your way” campaign is telling us to do. Yet by doing so, our silence makes us complicit in the ongoing oppression of Aboriginal people.
One study revealed that young people are beginning to view Australian identity through a multicultural lens, potentially indicating a shift in how young people define an “Australian." As the new generation, we want to fight to keep redefining what it means to be Australian because it will not improve otherwise. Our country will continue to be one of the biggest offenders of human rights.
Decolonisation is a collective effort needed by all Australians. By being critical about the history we are given we develop the power to reframe our history, and deconstruct the white-washed lens that has become so entrenched in our perspectives.
Dr Calma AO, Aboriginal elder of the Kungarakan people and member of the Iwaidja tribal group and social justice campaigner explained;
The refusal by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to acknowledge Australia Day is part of the ongoing struggle for recognition of Indigenous people's rights. It's about our fight to be included not excluded.
It's Not Really About the Day
However you choose to spend the 26th of January, know that it is not entirely about the day at all. The issue arises when we choose to ignore our history and we fail accept it for what it is. We do our part by relearning our history and voicing it in the public arena (yes, go to the Invasion day protests!).
All we know is that we don’t want a day that proudly supports British Colonialism under the guise of Australian identity. A day built on celebrating only one perspective of history is not a stable foundation to call for the collective unity of all Australians. We want an Australia Day that is honest about its history, the good, the bad and the incredibly ugly. One that is actively seeking to unite all of us in our present by understanding our past.
Ao, TC 2015, ‘Australia Survival Day’, AQ: Australian Quarterly, vol. 86, no. 1, pp. 10–12.
Australiaday.org.au. (2020). Australia Day. [online] Available at: https://www.australiaday.org.au/about-australia-day/history/ [Accessed 23 Jan. 2020].
Farrugia, JP, Dzidic, PL & Roberts, LD 2018, ‘“It is usually about the triumph of the coloniser”: Exploring young people's conceptualisations of Australian history and the implications for Australian identity’, Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, vol. 28, no. 6, pp. 483–494.
HISTORY.com. (2020). Australia Day. [online] Available at: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/australia-day [Accessed 23 Jan. 2020].
Kleist, J. Olaf. (2017) Political Memories and Migration Belonging, Society, and Australia Day . London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Marlow, K. (2016). Australia Day, Invasion Day, Survival Day: What's in a name?. [online] NITV. Available at: https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/explainer/australia-day-invasion-day-survival-day-whats-name [Accessed 23 Jan. 2020].
Sargeant, C. (2020). The many different dates we've celebrated Australia Day. [online] SBS. Available at: https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/voices/culture/article/2018/01/23/many-different-dates-weve-celebrated-australia-day [Accessed 23 Jan. 2020].
Wyld, K. (2018). Karen Wyld: What kind of morality do they want us to celebrate on That Day |. [online] IndigenousX Showcasing & Celebrating Indigenous Diversity. Available at: https://indigenousx.com.au/karen-wyld-what-kind-of-morality-do-they-want-us-to-celebrate-on-that-day/ [Accessed 23 Jan. 2020].