What’s wrong with celebrating Australia Day on 26th January?

Australia Day – or Invasion Day – has been marked around the country on 26th January in dramatically different ways since 1994. Some Australians will celebrate with barbecues and enjoy firework displays, while others will look back at history and mourn. So, what is the story behind this increasingly contested national day?

January 26th, 1788 was the day the First Fleet of British convict ships arrived at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson and founded the colony of New South Wales. It is recognised as the day when the British Captain, Arthur Phillip, raised the Union Jack to signal the beginning of the colony.

Unfortunately, the history of this day is still not taught in many Australian schools today, and there is widespread confusion as to why the date was chosen in the first place. A national survey conducted in March 2017 found that, while more than 7/10 respondents declared that Australia Day was important to them, many did not know which event it commemorated. In fact, only 43% correctly identified the first arrival of a First Fleet ship at Sydney Cove.

The Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, has previously described Australia Day as a chance for Australians ‘from all walks of life, from all backgrounds‘ to join together to celebrate how far the country has come. Morrison said it was important to be honest about Australia’s past ‘failings’, whilst also still being able to recognise its achievements. Although the idea of every Australian joining together on 26th January to celebrate might be the intention, it is not the reality, and experts say it is not one that is likely to ever be achieved.

Reconciliation Australia, the national body focused on reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, said many Aboriginal people wish to celebrate Australian values and freedoms but feel they can’t do that on January 26th. ‘The historical events of January 26th mean that many Australians – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – perceive it as date that marks the commencement of a long history of violence and trauma,’ the organisation explains. This is the basis of the campaign known as ‘Change the Date’ which works for a day that all Australians can celebrate.

Australia’s Indigenous people were living on the continent for more than 60,000 years before the arrival of the British and since 26th January 1788, Indigenous people have endured oppression and dispossession on a wide scale. According to Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, ‘there was armed conflict, commencing years of frontier conflict, massacres, forcibly stealing other First Nations’ land, moving them off it, stealing vital food resources, and smashing the way of life that had been lived for thousands of years. The uninvited British arrival and encampment in Sydney Cove was both a staging post, and the start, of a long invasion of First People’s land.’

There is also the suggestion that Australia Day should be abolished as a national holiday completely, arguing that there is nothing to celebrate until more work is done towards bringing social justice for the Indigenous people and acknowledging that the values the day celebrates, which include equality, freedom and opportunity, is not what many Australians experience. In response to this, the organisation, Common Ground, draws together really well the feelings of Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander people saying, ‘The purpose of changing the date is to recognise that many people value having a special day to celebrate the place they call home, while also acknowledging the traumatic context and history that 26th January in particular represents.’

Without a doubt, Australia is starting to make great improvements in recognising its deep-rooted history in the Aborigine people, for example for the first time ever, Aboriginal art was displayed across the Sydney Opera House this Australia Day.

However, this conflict between native and emerging peoples is not only exclusive to Australia, but can also be seen in many other countries across the world, suggesting that as a global community we need to make a greater effort to include our past into our future.

Rebecca (Year 13)

Photo Credit:
The foundation of Sydney, Australia, 1788 (colour litho)
Private Collection /Look and Learn / Elgar Collection / Bridgeman Images
Rights Managed /