Australia Day: Why we need to change the date (and why we haven’t)

With Australia Day approaching, like many Australians you might be planning to knock back a few beers, hit the beach, and perhaps even don the flag.

But with each passing year, it’s growing increasingly difficult to ignore the debate surrounding the date on which we celebrate this national holiday. As the discussion steadily gains more traction, supporters, controversy and media attention, it’s important to understand why so many Australians are calling to change the date.

Although at present we associate Australia Day with national pride and celebration, the date it falls on marks the day Britain’s colonisation of Australia began in 1788.

Many have pointed out that it’s counterintuitive to celebrate our great and culturally-diverse nation while simultaneously commemorating the start of the significant devastation and destruction inflicted upon our country’s original custodians.

But others see the arrival of the First Fleet as the creation of so-called ‘modern Australia’, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, as evidenced in his 2018 tweet.

 

This sentiment suggests Australia’s history began only once it became westernised and that the Australia worth celebrating on our national holiday isn’t the nation that predated colonisation for an estimated 65,000 years.

While 26 January does mark a historical moment that significantly changed the face of the country, celebrating on this day ignores the negative consequences ignited by the arrival of the First Fleet and raising of the British flag in Sydney Cove.

Particularly, the genocide of Australia’s Indigenous population, massive destruction of traditional lands and food sources, and the continuous exclusion, domination and infliction of a foreign culture.

While many may agree with Scott Morrison’s stance and argue that Australia Day represents the creation, growth and development of an ‘advanced’ nation, we currently can’t celebrate without inadvertently celebrating the mistreatment of a significant portion of our population.

A common retort to this is that although these events took place on 26 January, revelers no longer celebrate with these connotations in mind. Instead, they celebrate everything they love about living in Australia in 2020.

Ask those playing beer-pong, enjoying a family BBQ, or going to the beach on Australia Day and they’ll likely tell you that they aren’t celebrating colonisation.

There is evidently some validity in this point. The meaning and significance of the 26th has strayed and transformed over time. In fact, a poll by the Australia Institute found just 38 percent of respondents could correctly identify the events of the 26th as the First Fleet landing at Sydney Cove.

But doesn’t this simply prove the lacking role the date plays in celebrating Australia Day? If the anniversary isn’t the spirit of the revelries and pride, then surely there’s little sense in it falling on a date that causes pain for so many.

Morrison believes that a resolution to this debate can be found in the creation of a new day to celebrate Aboriginal Australia, while leaving Australia Day where it is.

In 2018 he told Channel Seven, “we don’t have to pull Australia Day down to actually recognise the achievements of Indigenous Australia, the oldest living culture in the world; the two can coexist”.

However, all this seems to achieve is bringing attention to the fact that even with Australia’s current holidays and national celebrations of Indigenous culture – including NAIDOC week and Reconciliation Day – there are often very few real-world government actions and initiatives to complement the spirit of these events.

Indigenous Australians are still frequently treated like second class citizens. They experience significantly worse health outcomes and lower life expectancies, as well as being more likely to be incarcerated.

The Australian Government’s reluctance to move a national holiday – one that notably has only been celebrated on 26 January for the last 21 years – demonstrates an unflinching attitude that prioritises ‘national pride’ over its Indigenous population.

It’s important to remember that – as with many political debates – public opinion and public actions have the power to make statements and changes despite government inaction.

In 2017, Triple J shifted its Hottest 100 music countdown – an Australia Day staple – to 27 January in support of the Change the Date protests. Some council areas have also begun to move traditional Australia Day group citizenship ceremonies to the 27th.

These are small and relatively simple changes, but they demonstrate that changing the date isn’t all that difficult or dramatic.

Image by Jayden Turner 

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