This week we mark a very significant in Australia’s history. 26 January 1788 was the first time Europeans landed on this continent intending to stay here. Whether that’s regarded as good or bad, it’s undeniably important.
People in NSW have been marking 26 January since the early 1800’s to commemorate the anniversary of the first British landing. The other colonies celebrated their own founding dates. It wasn’t until 1935 that all Australian States and Territories accepted 26 January as Australia’s national day and agreed to call it “Australia Day”.
Marking 26 January had always been about commemorating British arrival. But over time it also became a day for the colonies to celebrate growing self-reliance and lessening dependency on Britain. There’s always been a tension between celebrating British arrival on the one hand and celebrating Australia’s own identity and independence on the other.
In 1938, the Premiers gathered in Sydney to mark 150 years since the First Fleet’s landing. That same day, Aboriginal leaders held a Day of Mourning and Protest to highlight the mistreatment of Aboriginal people and campaign for equal rights. Jack Patten opened the Day of Mourning and Protest conference saying:
“On this day the white people are rejoicing, but we, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday. Our purpose in meeting today is to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines of this continent live. This land belonged to our forefathers 150 years ago, but today we are pushed further and further into the background.... We do not wish to be left behind in Australia’s march to progress. We ask for full citizen rights., , including old age pensions, maternity bonus, relief work when unemployed, and the right to a full Australian education for our children. We do not wish to be herded like cattle, and treated as a special class.”
The Conference passed the following resolution:
“We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community."
Indigenous people overwhelmingly feel anger, sadness and grief about the chain of events beginning on 26 January 1788. That was when our ancestors began losing their lands and their ability to speak their languages, practice ceremony and live under their kinship systems. And we, their descendants, lost our birthright. That chain of events continued to bring hardship and loss for many decades. For as long as I can remember, Indigenous people have referred to 26 January as “Invasion Day”. More recently we’ve also used the term “Survival Day”, to commemorate our achievements and survival of our nations against the odds.
Most Indigenous people will never celebrate 26 January. That doesn’t mean Indigenous people won’t celebrate Australia. Quite the opposite. Remember Jack Patten’s call in 1938 – to be raised to full citizen status; to not be left behind in Australia’s march to progress. Indigenous people in 1938 were longing for inclusion; they weren’t shunning Australia but demanding full citizenship. We campaigned tirelessly to be recognised as fully Australian, to be truly part of this nation. And when we were in 1967 we celebrated.
The 26th of January is the wrong day to celebrate Australia Day.
Firstly, Australia wasn’t founded on 26 January 1788. It was founded on 1 January 1901 when six British colonies united as a single nation under the Australian Constitution. Before then, people living in those colonies were British subjects. For most of their history the other colonies/states didn’t commemorate 26 January because it was a day of significance for NSW. They resisted embracing it as the national day, reluctant to signal NSW as the senior state.
Secondly, the tension between commemorating British conquest on the one hand and celebrating Australian identity and independence on the other isn’t going away. This isn’t a recent tension drummed up by Lefties. It’s always been there, even before anyone cared about what Indigenous people think.
Now I know Australia loves its public holiday at the end of January. So declare the last Friday of January a public holiday and let the end January continue to be part of our national routine for holidays, BBQs with friends and family, summer activities and fun. But it doesn’t need to be on the 26th every year and it doesn’t need to be Australia’s national day.
Australia Day should be celebrated on 1 January. That’s the proper day to celebrate Australia’s independence, identity and nationhood because that’s the day Australia came into being and it’s a day everyone can unite behind.
All Australians, including Indigenous Australians, should be able to celebrate our country, its achievements and unique identity. The sentiments expressed on Australia Day are good and they’re sentiments most Indigenous people share. But we can’t celebrate unity on a day representing conflict and conquest.
I want Australia Day moved - not because I don’t want to celebrate Australia; but because I do.
Versions of the article were published in the Daily Telegraph and Courier Mail on 24 January 2017 and The Koori Mail on 25 January 2017.
Change the date so all can celebrate
26 January 2017
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO