Australia Day Controversy – Should we change the date?
Most nations bind their days of remembrance and celebration to anniversaries of successful events in their history. Australia is unusual as the days of remembrance and celebration are bound to the anniversaries of tragedy. One of these is Anzac Day on April 25, the anniversary of the 1915 Gallipoli landing in which Australians were slaughtered in an ill-fated invasion of Turkey. Australia Day on January 26 is another on the anniversary of a tragedy. It is signficantly different from Anzac Day, however, in that it doesn't have any of the Anzac style humanist culture associated with it. In fact, Australia Day is not really associated with much at all except some groups campaigning for a change of date.
Australia Day' relatively meaningless status can be attributed to centuries of trying to erase the day's Convict origins that were the basis of it first being observed in 1808. Reflecting this erasure, a survey in 2017 found that only 43 per cent of Australians were able to correctly name the day as the unloading of Convicts at Port Jackson Harbour in 1788. (1) Many Australians incorrectly believe it was when Captain Cook annexed Australia for Britain (22nd of August 1770) or when Governor Phillip landed in Botany Bay with the First Fleet (January 18 1788).
Even though it is a virtually meaningless day today, January 26 did have meaning to the Convicts who initiated it. In short, in 1808 emancipated Convicts used January 26 as a date to organise great parties to celebrate the land they lived in. In a way, the parties celebrated their survival after a horrendous sea journey characterised by sexual assault, starvation, deprivation and punishment. There were alternative dates that probably would have been chosen instead if the day was initiated by officialdom wanting to celebrate the British empire. One possible date would have been 22nd of August, the anniversary of Captain Cook annexing east Australia for Britain. Another possible date was February 7, the anniversary of Governor Phillip making a formal proclamation of a colony. January 18 also could have been chosen as the date the First Fleet first made contact with Australia.
As the parties grew in size, emancipists and their children infused them with political edge as they campaigned to have the same rights as free British migrants. In 1818, their cause was embraced by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who acknowledged the day with its first official celebration of what was then known as Foundation Day.
As a fledging Australian identity emerged, there was some adoption in other colonies but the Convict heritage continued to haunt it. By 1888, all colonial capitals except Adelaide celebrated "Anniversary Day". Adelaide prided itself on its Convict free status so declined to take part. The Bulletin magazine also found the Convict origins to be problematic and ran a campaign to change the date to the anniversary of the Eureka Massacre. In 1888 it wrote,
In 1935, the date became known as Australia Day across all of Australia as different colonies, including South Australia, sought to have a unifying national day. By this time, most of the Convict associations had been lost. Instead, it seemed to be promoted as the day that the British empire expanded. This could be seen in the artwork The Founding of Australia  by Algernon Talmadge, which omitted Aborigines and Convicts as it showed the raising of the British flag. Likewise, a 1938 re-enactment of the first fleet’s arrival included Aborigines along with British soldiers but had no Convicts. Admittedly, it was understandable that Convicts were excluded because their appearance would have dampened the festive spirit. After all, to be authentic, they probably would have needed to find some starving homeless people that were happy to wear leg irons or women willing to portray their sexual exploitation. Perhaps a few well beaten orphans would also have helped add a touch of realism.
In 1960, Australia Day got a political dimension when a Victorian patriotic association initiated the Australian of the Year Awards to give recognition to the person who had “brought the greatest honour to Australia in the year under review.” Naturally, what constituted “honour” was a subjective judgment. Nevertheless, early Australians of the Years were well respected whose achievements had in fact helped foster national pride. Through them, Australia Day became a patriotic day.
During the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations, a historical angle was infused into Australia Day simply because a Bicentennial was being celebrated. Ironically, the official advertisement to promote the Bicentennial was devoid of history as it located the celebrations at Uluru in central Australia. Furthermore, the official advertisement just sang about the need to be happy. In response, a group of Indigenous people gathered in Sydney to protest. These Indigenous people referred to Australia Day as “Invasion day” or “Survival day”.
The Aboriginal protests resonated because it was arguably the only meaning being attached to the day. Certainly, there was no alternative narrative promoted by the National Australia Day Council. In other words, the critics had sole ownership of the stage to promote their message because no one else wanted to assert a message. With time, their message was proliferated until grievance became popularist culture. Typical grievance comments of Australia Day now include:
The National Australia Day Council, whose charter was to inspire pride in the day, even got into to the culture of grievance by awarding the Australian of the Year to activists with axes to grind. These activists often hadn't achieved anything other than having their voices of negativity amplified. The whole concept of Australia Day was then under threat. Although some activists advocated alternative dates, other activists wanted the whole concept of an Australia Day to be abandoned.
Alternative anniversary dates for Australia Day have been problematic as they too have historical issues attached. One suggested date was Federation Day on January 1. The problem with the date is that it is already a holiday and celebrating politicians is almost as difficult as celebrating Convicts. Beside which, Federation is closely aligned with the Immigration Restriction Act (White Australia Policy), which is problematic for national celebration.
Another day is the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which allowed Aborigines to be counted in the federal census and for the Federal government to make race-based laws targeted at Aborigines to advance them. The obvious problem with the date is that, more than 50 years on, it is pretty well agreed no Federal government has used the race-power law wisely.
The 13th of February, the anniversary of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologising to the Stolen Generations (mixed race people who were forcibly removed as children from their homes in an attempt to advance them) is another date suggested for national celebration. The problem with the date is that it involved the federal government apologising for the actions of state governments (the federal government had been constitutionally forbidden from making laws targeted at Aborigines until 1967.) Furthermore, not only did the apology involve one group of Australians apologising for the actions of another, there was no attempt to make amends or even pass laws to prevent a re-occurrence after the apology was made. It is not exactly the action that would inspire future generations.
Some activists have pushed for a Mabo Day on the 3rd of June to commemorate the High Court overturning the legal fiction of 'terra nullius' (Terra nullius was widespread belief that Australia was un-owned before being annexed by Captain Cook in 1770.) While the symbolism of acknowledging past ownership appeals to many activists, the High Court also said that the British were in their legal right to extinguish Aboriginal title by selling or granting land and there was no need to pay compensation over the loss. Furthermore, it asserted Britain’s legal right to gain sovereignty over Australia and for Aborigines to remain subservient to Crown sovereignty today. As the High Court clarified in Walker versus New South Wales (1995),
In short, it is a bit strange to celebrate the judgement as a win for Aborigines simply because it acknowledged past ownership while asserting the legal right to dispossess Aborigines without paying compensation. It would be a bit like a criminal stealing a car and patting themselves on the back for acknowledging it was stolen but still deciding to keep it anyway.
December 3, the anniversary of the Eureka Massacre, was a promoted date by fledging Australian nationalists in the late 19th century. Ultimately though, the massacre of drunk miners who raised a flag and dug in for a battle against the British never found a sympathetic ear amongst the British ruling class and never really reached broad appeal amongst the Australian population either.
As much as urban Australia has made a remarkable transition from a hellish penal colony to arguably one of the most desirable places in the world to live, that transition has not come on the back of momentous occasions or revolutionary events. While an invading army unloading prisoners on a foreign land may not be a great achievement, there is something to respect about a culture coming so far from such terrible beginnings. That is worth remembering whatever date that Australia Day is held on.