In recent years, there’s been a renewed push to move Australia Day from January 26. And in the past few weeks, three Melbourne councils have ‘ditched’ official Australia Day celebrations. Triple J, which famously plays its annual ‘Hottest 100’ on Australia Day (the soundtrack to many beers-and-sausage-and-bread parties), put out a controversial survey asking its listeners if the Hottest 100 should be moved.
This has re-ignited conversation around our national day of celebration. Various polls in the recent past have indicated that most Australians don’t favour changing the date, but public opinion appears to be shifting. Malcom Turnbull and his government are committed to sticking to January 26. Last week on Q&A, Bill Shorten remarked that he was sympathetic to those who would like to see the celebration moved. And last night on the same program Labor Minister Tony Burke said it was probably time for politicians to talk about moving the day. This will be a conversation that sticks around for a while, and it opens up a massive can of worms for how Australia thinks about itself.
Why the 26th of January? (a very short history)
The 26th of January marks the day of the First Fleet, in 1788, arriving in Port Jackson, New South Wales, and raising the flag of Great Britain. It wasn’t until 1935 that Australians started informally thinking of the day as ‘Australia Day’. It wasn’t until 1994 that the day was officially labelled a public holiday. (For those playing at home, that makes Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Jurassic Park and Mrs. Doubtfire older than the official Australia Day.)
For much of the indigenous community, January 26th is called ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’, as they see January 26th as the official start of British colonial rule that decimated the indigenous population of Australia. The three Melbourne councils that have recently ditched the 26th have cited the indigenous population’s lack of inclusion in the celebrations as reason enough to move the date.
The debate was captured well on last night’s episode of Q&A, featuring indigenous musician Dan Sultan and Australian Attorney-General George Brandis.
Dan Sultan begins:
“I think there are many days throughout our history that include everybody, and I think it’s important that a day called Australia Day includes all Australians. The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t include us, excludes us. It excludes anyone who has any type of sympathy or empathy towards our story which is a hell of a lot of Australians. To call it Australia Day is wrong. It’s a complicated issue but also very simple as well. Does it include everyone or doesn’t it? No, it doesn’t. Don’t call it Australia Day.”
“There is a natural logic about the 26th of January as the point in time at which the Australia we now recognise, modern Australia, had its beginning — without for a moment disrespecting the fact that … there were Indigenous people living on this continent. Like all countries, there are aspects of our history about which we should be ashamed. And on Australia Day, we both celebrate the … good inclusive nation that Australia has become, while at the same time reflecting on those parts of our history that are dark passages.”
Sultan responded that Australia’s racist past was still very much it’s racist present, with indigenous death’s in custody still at alarming rates. For the Australian Government, official celebrations of Australia Day begin with a ceremony hi-lighting indigenous Australians and end with citizenship ceremonies of new Australians. For most Aussies, however, Australia Day is a day off and a party, and an excuse to wear those southern cross board shorts you’ve been dying to try.
Jacquie Lambie, an independent senator, was also on the panel, and said she was concerned about Australians losing their understanding of their culture and history. Moving the date, she said, threatened Aussie culture.
“God forbid you should lose your culture,” said Dan Sultan, dryly.
How are the local councils ‘ditching’ the date?
Local councils across the country hold all sorts of celebrations on ‘Australia Day’, including citizenship ceremonies or special awards that hi-light people in the community. Yarra City Council in Melbourne was the first to do away with this, and two more councils followed.
The federal Government ‘punished’ them by stripping away their ability to conduct citizenship ceremonies.
Beyond refusing to hold local celebrations, there is little that local councils can do to affect change beyond their borders. Other councils in the Melbourne region have voted to keep Australia Day celebrations exactly as they are.
Nevertheless, Yarra Council is the first government body to officially recognise that January 26th is, at the very least, problematic for a wide range of Australians. Their legitimising of the protest signals that this will be a conversation that is difficult to dismiss, in spite of the Government’s attempts.
This is complicated, isn’t it?
It’s also worth noting that January 26th 1788 marks Australia’s official beginning as a British colony, but it’s now well-established that Australia had had many other foreign discoveries prior to this point. In fact, the English had come to Australia well before 1788. The first was in 1622, Captain John Brookes. (Remember? No? What do you mean Australians are out of touch with their history?) We also had the French, the Chinese, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese…all before 1788.
The whole concept of ‘Australia Day’ is an existential stone-in-the-shoe of modern Australia. It forces us to contend with our history. It’s a history that is young, relatively violent, and mostly unknown by most Australians. Everyone tends to agree that Australia is worth celebrating, and those who disagree with moving the date tell us it’s a day where everyone can come together in harmony and celebrate our multiculturalism, regardless of the past. How can Aussies do that in a way that also acknowledges our actual, unspoken history so that we can move towards whole-hearted inclusion, not just tokenism?
Beneath the superficial conversation about the date, is a philosophical quandary that lies at the heart of contemporary Australia. We are one of the youngest nations in the Western world, on a piece of land that is some of the oldest on the terrestrial crust. Before colonisation, it was one home to one of the longest living and ancient cultures on the planet.
Today, indigenous health and poverty is Australia’s secret shame. Indigenous Australians have some of the worst health statistics of any population in the world. It’s a fact that some Australians just can’t bring themselves to forget, no matter how many sausages and Triple J parties we throw at the problem.
If you want a very readable, great insight into Aussie history, I highly recommend Girt by David Hunt.
Photographs by John Miles and Frances Gunn.
We’ll be back at the end of the week with the news.