This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

Australia Day has been celebrated as an official holiday in Australia since 1818, with its proponents proclaiming it to be a day of national unity and remembrance. Each year on January 26th, the holiday is commemorated with community festivals, concerts, and political addresses, and is seen as symbolic of national identity. However, in recent years, a growing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists have been campaigning for a change to Australia’s national day. Activists and their supporters argue that the 26th of January should be a day of national mourning, not celebration, and that the holiday excludes indigenous history. Despite conservative pushback, an increasing number of Australians are becoming aware of the holiday’s bloody history, generating hope that in future years, celebrations will be more inclusive of Australia’s diverse past and present. 

The 26th of January marks the day, in 1788, when Admiral Arthur Phillip first landed at Sydney Cove with a fleet of eleven convict ships, beginning the British colonisation of Australia. Although British colonisers treated the land as ‘undiscovered’, and therefore free to be taken, Australia had been inhabited by Aboriginal civilizations for more than 60,000 years. What followed was a brutal and lengthy invasion process wherein indigenous people sought to defend the land which they had inhabited for millennia. During more than a century of the frontier wars or, more aptly, ‘the killing times’, countless atrocities were committed against indigenous people, forcing them to submit to colonial authority. From Admiral Phillip’s arrival until the late 1920s, massacres were a common occurrence, with colonial authorities and civilians rounding up and executing indigenous people. One such massacre occurred on Australia Day in 1838 at Waterloo Creek, when up to 300 Aboriginal people were killed by a group of mounted police. An official inquiry at the time cleared those involved of any wrongdoing. By 1934, at least 40,000 indigenous Australians had been killed by invaders, although much of the evidence surrounding this mass murder was concealed or destroyed by the colonial government. 

This conflict did not mark the end of the oppression of indigenous Australians. From 1910 until the 1970s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly removed from their homes by the government as part of the policy of assimilation. The government at the time believed that Aboriginal peoples should, for their own good, be forced to conform with white mainstream Australian culture. Children were removed from their families and adopted by white people, or placed in institutions which were rife with abuse and neglect. They were taught to reject their own languages and culture, and many had their names changed in line with European norms. The impact was devastating; children who were forcibly removed suffered from high rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and many cultural practises were lost. In 2008, the Australian Prime Minister formally apologised to this Stolen Generation, but campaigners have argued that this is not enough. In order to help heal the wounds inflicted by assimilation policies, Australia should acknowledge the suffering of indigenous people on a wider scale, including by changing the date of Australia Day. 

Dating ‘Australia Day’ as the day on which it was colonised by Europeans is inherently Eurocentric, discounting the thousands of years of Aboriginal history which preceded invasion. For indigenous people, this date does not mark the beginning of their nation, but the beginning of over 200 years of violence, discrimination and systemic abuse. For this reason, many within indigenous communities have long objected to the celebration of January 26th. In recent years, the protest of Australia Day has become more mainstream, with many people now referring to the date as Invasion Day and calling for a different date to be selected for national celebration. In 2020, tens of thousands of protestors gathered in every major Australian city, with placards reading “Change the Nation” and “No pride in genocide.” At the Melbourne protests, Aboriginal activist Uncle Robbie Thorpe called it a “day of mourning” for his people, and expressed hope that this year would be one of the last Invasion Days to be celebrated in Australia.   

Despite the growing popularity of these campaigns, a significant number of Australians still believe that Australia Day is something to celebrate: a 2017 poll found that only 26% support changing the date. The presently sitting government has also challenged the campaign; Prime Minister Scott Morrison has argued that Australia Day should be seen as a symbol of national unity despite the objections of indigenous groups. As the campaign has gained more prevalence in recent years, it has in turn become more politicised, with conservative politicians using the issue to stir a sense of nationalism in voters. This will certainly present a challenge for indigenous protesters as they continue to fight for recognition of Australia Day’s dark history. However, in 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement generated a wider awareness of racism and discrimination around the world. Perhaps this will prompt non-indigenous Australians to examine the terrible history of their national holiday, leading to an Australia more aware of the suffering of its first people.  

By Jenna Helms