‘Change the Date, Mate!’
The Debate Surrounding 26 January – Australia Day
By Yavin Kumar @ Sydney Criminal Defence Lawyers
Australia Day is marked in our calendar as a national public holiday, and is a day to reflect on what it means to be an Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia, and acknowledge our nation’s history.
Australia Day is about ‘acknowledging and celebrating the contribution that every Australian makes to our contemporary and dynamic nation… from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to those who have lived here for generations, to those who have come from all corners of the globe to call our country home’, according to the National Australia Day Council.
For some, Australia Day is a day for BBQ’s, festivals and gatherings with friends and family, and for approximately 13,000 people this year, the day that they officially become official citizens of our country. For Indigenous people, it’s a day of mourning.
The 26th day of January marks the raising of the Union Jack in Sydney Cove by Arthur Phillip in 1788, the area where the First Fleet had arrived after finding that its initial landing point at Botany Bay was unsuitable. The Raising of the Union Jack was the official declaration of British sovereignty over the penal colony of New South Wales, and the greater ‘Newfoundland’ that would later become known as Australia.
Recent movements amongst many members of the community – both indigenous and non-indigenous – have called to change the date of our national holiday, on the basis that 26 January marks the start of a long history of dispossession and trauma for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, even if it has symbolic roots signifying the beginnings of Australia as a colony. The Tradition of holding an annual celebration on 26 January began in the early 1800s, although only in New South Wales (as it was geographically known then). It was referred to by various names such as ‘First Landing Day’ and ‘Foundation Day’, however Australia Day has only been celebrated nationally on this date as recently as 1994, and the date of this significant day has been changed before.
Given the controversy of the date of Australia Day, should the date be changed to achieve a national holiday that unifies all Australians?
During the 2018 Australia Day celebrations, activist group Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) held the largest Aboriginal rally since the 1970s land rights movement, and dismissed the campaign to change the date of Australia Day as a “feel good” gesture, outlining that a change in the date would do nothing to address the fundamental issues regarding social and economic rights, as well as the right to sovereignty, that Aboriginal people face as a result of the annual festivities.
The Founder of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, Miriki Onus, commented
I don’t want to feel good about changing the date, I want justice for all my people… I will fight every single day for that… any day you celebrate, I’ll protest”, clearly reflecting the hard-line views shown by many of the group’s supporters.
Greens MP Lidia Thorpe, who is the first indigenous woman to be elected into the Victorian Parliament, suggested that flags at Parliament house should be flown at half-mast on 26 January every year to acknowledge the dispossession and trauma experienced by Indigenous people following British settlement. Thorpe commented that the date is “an opportunity for this nation to come together, and one of the ways we can do this is to first know the truth of the day and have ownership of past wrongs”.
Celebrating Australia Day means more than just a day off from work and a long weekend – to the Indigenous community, it is a day that their freedom was taken away from them, and marks the start of inhumane discrimination from English settlers. For others, Australia Day is a celebration of a new beginning and a reflection of our past. Finding a middle ground that pleases the supporters and the critics against Australia Day is a truly difficult task, and it is unlikely that a compromise that suits both sides of this annual debate will be found any time soon.
However, as ‘the land of a fair go’, we must all continue to work together to acknowledge the wrongdoings of our colonial history, and allow for some healing time for our nation to come together to celebrate what it means to be an Australian, in the name of mateship.
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