While the US, Argentina and Fiji celebrate holidays that mark their independence, Australia is one of the few countries in the world to celebrate the day of an invasion.
Against the backdrop of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the sinister shadow of an unprecedented global pandemic, Australians proved in 2020 that they were ready for change.
Hundreds of thousands of people marched, posted on Instagram, donated money and made their voices heard, calling for action to stop the 430 First Nations deaths in custody in the past two decades from climbing any higher.
However, according to Indigenous Australians, it’s time for our country to prove Black lives really do matter, by changing the meaning of our ‘national day’ once and for all, and to acknowledge January 26 for what it is.
“Refusing to celebrate 26 January, because it is the anniversary of a racist invasion, is an expression that Black lives do matter,” says Thomas Mayor, the Torres Strait author of the bestseller ′Finding the Heart of the Nation. “You cannot say you support BLM and then don the Australian flag in ignorance toward the hurt and dispossession [of] Black people in this country.”
News flash: Australia Day isn’t a ye olde tradition
It’s a strange, brutal and relatively recent quirk of Australia’s colonial history that January 26, a day that marks an invasion rather than independence, has even become our national day. It wasn’t until 1994 ― less than 30 years ago ― that all states and territories declared it a holiday.
“People love to say, ‘Oh, but it’s tradition’, and I say, ‘No, it’s not. It’s in my lifetime.’” NITV’s ’The Whole Table’ panelist Wesley Enoch told HuffPost. “It reminds us that this country loves to forget history…
“I had graduated from university and got my first job, and toured the world before they said Australia Day had to be on January 26.”
It’s something people hold on to because they’re scared of accepting greater history, Enoch said, adding that Australia’s actual history places us as “elders” on the world scene, but “we want to be juvenile and young petulant kids because that’s ‘lucky’. We always want to be known as the lucky country.”
Well, on January 26, 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip set up camp at Sydney Harbour, the First Australians weren’t so lucky.
Australia Day marks the beginning of the marginalisation of First Nations Australians and marks 233 years of violence and intergenerational trauma for people with Indigenous heritage. Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face more social, health and employment disadvantages than other Australians. The day is a reminder that sovereignty over the land was never recognised, and that First Nations folk were not acknowledged in the constitution and still aren’t.
“Australia Day was never an event when I was growing up in the ’60s,” Evolve Communities founder and Bardi elder Munya Andrews said.
“Australians never even called themselves ‘Australians’ back then. We were referred to as British. I only ever became aware of ‘Australia Day’ as an adult, and by then there was growing political consciousness about what it meant for Aboriginal people, who started calling it ‘Invasion Day’ initially and then later as Survival Day.
“I think most people would be surprised to know that it is less than 100 years that it has been called ‘Australia Day’ and thirty years since it has been marked by a public holiday.”
Wait, did John Howard invent Australia Day?
Mayor, who now lives on Larrakia Country and is a signatory to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a tireless campaigner, remembered so-called Australia Day as any other day off.
“In my younger days, in the ’90s, it was just another public holiday,” he said.
“It wasn’t until the late ’90s, after John Howard came to power, that all the ignorant patriotism was shoved in our faces.
“Howard was a master of divide and conquer, and by his actions, such as the Northern Territory Intervention, he was racist”.
Recent research by the University of Sydney shows Australian prime ministers, including Howard, have marginalised certain groups in their speeches on ceremonial days like Australia Day and failed to acknowledge Australia’s diversity and First Peoples.
Howard dedicated whole Australia Day addresses to white male cricketers, such as Don Bradman and Steve Waugh, but only said a few sentences about Cathy Freeman when she won Australian of Year in 1998.
It’s important to note that, after consultation with its Indigenous advisory committee, Cricket Australia decided this year to remove the words Australia Day from its January 26 Big Bash League promotions, much to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s disappointment.
The times they are a-changin’
Data also suggests an attitude shift towards Australia Day, especially among younger people.
Each year since 2015, Essential Media has managed a poll with results showing a steady decline in people celebrating on January 26.
News Corp reports 29% of more than 1,000 people surveyed said they would celebrate Australia Day 2021. That’s 5% down from last year and an 11% drop from 2019.
Enoch said there are arguments on both sides of the Change the Date campaign, but there needs to be clear motivation for what the national day should be and a strategy behind it.
“What America does over three days, we try and fit into one. It has Columbus Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving. We’re trying to do all three on one day, and it just can’t work.
“It needs more ritual and ceremony. It needs to have structure ― like ANZAC Day.”
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