January 26 marks more than 200 years of ongoing dispossession and oppression for First Nations peoples – but many people are against changing the date. So how can you spread the message of why we shouldn’t celebrate January 26?
By Rachel Siewert
Chances are you’re already totally across why we need to change the date we celebrate what we stand for and who we are as Australians.
You will know that January 26 marks over 200 years of ongoing dispossession and oppression for First Nations peoples. This includes brutal frontier violence and massacres, indentured and forced labour, and violent attempts to wipe out First Nations languages and culture – including the forced removal of children from their families.
What may not come to you so readily are answers to the questions, objections, and statements of disbelief you may encounter among your family, friends and acquaintances.
So how can you spread the message of why we shouldn’t celebrate January 26? To take up the issue in coffee shops, at parties, at work or anywhere else that you may have the opportunity?
Surveys conducted by the media suggest that when people have access to information about how First Nations peoples view January 26, they are open to the discussion on changing the date. Part of what we can do is to spread these truths about our history.
Q. January 26 was the day Australia was born! What’s the problem?
Real (modern) Australia? It is not true that there were no people present in Australia on January 26 1788. When the First English Fleet arrived at Port Jackson, Arthur Phillip actually raised the Union Jack on the land of the Eora nation. At that time there were hundreds of separate Nations in Australia, all with their own language and culture. They were this continent’s First Nations peoples. This was confirmed in the High Court in the Mabo decision in 1992.
So what’s the problem? Think of what it’s like when you lose someone close to you. That date will forever more have a certain sadness attached to it.
Think now of events that are a tragedy for a whole nation. Would you choose that date for a major celebration? For First Nations peoples, January 26 is not a day to celebrate. It is a day of mourning. It was a day of invasion that began a long history of exploitation and marginalisation. And the effects of this invasion are still being felt to this day.
Shouldn’t we celebrate Australia on a day where we can ALL potentially feel happy and lucky to be Australians? Shouldn’t it be a day of unity? January 26 will never be this date.
Q. You shouldn’t change a tradition like January 26.
A tradition? Celebrating Australia on January 26 is a ‘tradition’ of only 24 years.
While a celebration has occurred since 1935, it was held on the Monday of a long weekend at the end of January – whatever the date. Twenty four years or even 84 years does not compare with the 60,000+ years of First Nations peoples tradition.
Australia was first celebrated on July 30 in 1915. This was the first official Australia Day celebration and it was held to raise funds for the World War I effort.
In 1916, after the formation of the Australia Day committee, it was determined that Australia Day would be held on July 28.
Other states have also celebrated the day.
The Hobart Regatta Day was once Tasmania’s Australia Day Celebration. Regatta Day is now held in January or February.
Foundation Day, now called WA Day, is held on June 1 and commemorates the founding of the Swan River Colony.
December 28 was Proclamation Day, a day to celebrate the establishment of Government in South Australia.
By 1953 the states and territories were celebrating a national day together, however it was still known as Anniversary Day in NSW, and Foundation Day in other regions.
By 1946, Commonwealth and state governments agreed that states would celebrate Australia Day as a country and with a public holiday. Australia Day became an official public holiday for all states and territories in 1994.
Since 1938, First Nations communities around the country have continued to mark 26 January as a day of mourning and, more recently, as Invasion Day or Survival Day. On the bicentenary in 1988, 40,000 First Nations peoples and their supporters staged a mass march from Redfern Park across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to protest Invasion Day.
Even if you are unconvinced by this argument, let’s face it: ’traditions’ should never be unalterable. History is strewn with dubious ‘traditions’ that in later times more insight has meant they have been dropped or altered.
Q. There aren’t any other dates that are appropriate!
This is an argument that is very hard to sustain, especially as the nation of Australia as a political entity was born on the January 1 1901 and our first Parliament commenced on May 9 1901. It would be quite possible to conduct a national conversation on other potential dates. After all, many nations have changed these seemingly immutable symbols (even their country’s defining flag) using similar processes.
Q. Isn’t it true that lots of First Nations peoples (some high profile) don’t care about or want the change either?
Just as there are differing opinions across Australia, there are differing opinions among First Nations peoples. Perhaps the best answer to this is the approach taken by Professor Tom Calma. Tom Calma is an Aboriginal elder of the Kungarakan tribal group and Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia. He says:
“While Reconciliation Australia advocates the need for an alternative date for Australia’s national day of unity, it is essential that any change to Australia’s national day must be unifying and supported by the majority of Australians. We support any actions that will raise awareness and discussion amongst the community to look at what this day means on the 26th of January to a whole range of people.”
“We’re particularly interested in making sure that whatever happens, this is about unification of Australia and not dividing us as a society. So having a conversation is very important at this stage.”
Q. Changing the date will make no real difference to the situation of Aboriginal people!
The date we celebrate Australia should be a celebration of who we are as a nation and community. If we choose a date to celebrate when First Nations peoples are excluded, what does that say about us? About our awareness and understanding of our own history, our inclusiveness and empathy and our willingness to be truthful and just?
Changing the date would be a very important symbol along the road to reconciliation, as was the official apology from our then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 for the wrongs of the past.
However, it is true that these symbolic actions are only part of what must be done to achieve healing, justice, sovereignty and treaty/ies. There is no doubt that policies and initiatives such as Closing the Gap and the Uluru Statement from the Heart are essential in our search for a better future for us all.
Rachel Siewert holds the Greens portfolio for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Issues.
Hero image: Takver via Flickr (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License).