Yes, it is that time again, when we’re a month after Christmas, it’s as hot as hell, everyone is at a barbie or watching the cricket or listening to Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown, or people are in a town hall taking the oath of citizenship—it must be Australia Day.
So, why do we celebrate the 26th of January as Australia Day, well what we are taught at school is that on January 26, Arthur Phillip landed at Botany Bay on Sydney Cove and declared the East coast of New Holland a British settlement, at the behest of King George III.
But, then even that is not so quite clear cut, according to Dr Elizabeth Kwan, author of Flag and Nation: Australians and Their National Flags since 1901, ‘the Fleet arrived between 18 and 20th of January 1788, but Botany Bay was basically a marshland and unsuitable for a colony. So, on 21 January, Phillip and a few officers traveled to Port Jackson, 12 kilometres to the north, to see if it would be a better location for a settlement. They stayed there until 23 January; Phillip named the site of their landing Sydney Cove, after the Home Secretary, Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney. Phillip and co, returned to Botany Bay on the evening of 23rd January, where Phillip gave orders to move the fleet to Sydney Cove the next morning, 24th January.
Due to the weather, they were unable to leave until the 25th’, something we are never told at school is that on the 24th of January Phillip and his crew spotted the ships; Astrolabe and Boussole, flying the French flag, under the command of Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse, at the entrance to Botany Bay; the British were just as stuck as the French.
So, on January 26th, a pissed off British Naval Officer said ‘screw this’; and moved his entire base of operations to Sydney Cove.
So, is that the reason we celebrate Australia Day on the 26th of January—European discovery of Australia?
Well, not exactly. The continent, that is now known as Australia, and what was then known as New Holland-the West coast, had already been charted by the Dutch and the Portuguese in the 1600’s; however there is good historical and anecdotal evidence that the Portuguese had already discovered and charted not just the West coast of Australia but also Northern Queensland and a large portion of the East coast, that James Cook would later be famous for charting in the 1700’s, with the Portuguese maps dating back to possibly around the 1520’s, and then of course there is the French Dieppe maps which show a huge land mass between what is now Indonesia and Antarctica called ‘Terre Australle’; made somewhere between the 1530’s and the 1560’s.
So, basically the 26th of January is when the British founded New South Wales, well Sydney essentially.
The tradition of noticing 26th January began a few decades, after the First Fleet’s landing in the early 1800’s, but it was only in New South Wales, and was referred to by various names over the decades from: First Landing Day and Foundation Day, to Australian Natives Association Day (yes Australian Natives—but of course they were white people). Other states, colonies – namely South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land) – celebrated their own colonial foundations, which took place on other dates. For example South Australia had their own day on December 28, although Proclamation Day might have been celebrated greater if people weren’t recovered from Christmas hangovers and getting ready for New Year’s Eve.
The first official Australia Day, was the brainchild of a Manly house wife, Ellen Warton-Kirke, whose four sons were all in the Armed Forces , one of whom had died in the Gallipoli campaign, was held on the 30th July, 1915. It was a fundraising day for the war effort at a time when Australian troops were in some of the heaviest fighting Australian armed forces had ever seen.
According to the Australian War Memorial’s website, “Ribbons, badges, handkerchiefs, buttons and other items… were sold to raise funds, with phrases such as ‘For Australia’s Heroes’, ‘Help Our Wounded Heroes’ and ‘The Turks Struck their Match in the Australians’ (on match boxes) which appealed to people’s sense of pride and patriotism. From a population of just under 5 million people, the day raised over £311,500 in Victoria and more than £839,500 in NSW. In today’s figures that would be close to $623,000 and $1.7 million respectively”.
How Aussie is that? It was a day of fundraising and raising our spirits during the Hell that was the First World War, and subsequently other states and territories followed.
Can we actually look at the idea of Australia Day, or Foundation Day, or any remembrance of our colonial past without looking back at all aspects of the past, not just the Man from Snowy River, the Kelly Gang and Captain Cook. Why are people so afraid to look into our past without our blinkers on? The issue at hand is of course the acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians; in a respectful and meaningful way, not just in the media, or in the history books, but also in mainstream Australian culture.
Of course, not everyone in the mainstream supports the idea of Australia Day being on the 26th of January. Political rancor last year between an Inner Melbourne city-council unanimously voted in support of changing the date of Australia Day away from January 26. The council agreed to make the following three changes:
Replace the Australia Day citizenship ceremony with an event “marking the loss of Indigenous culture”. Drop all reference to Australia day and instead refer to “January 26”. Lobby the Federal Government to change the date of Australia Day. Officially support the #changethedate campaign.
The #changethedate campaign argues that celebrating the start of British colonisation is deeply offensive to Indigenous Australians, because the day also represents the beginning of Indigenous dispossession of land and culture, as well as the atrocities committed by colonists, including rape and murder—which of course is true in law and history, but something that is just not acknowledged in the Australian constitution or by Australian tradition.
And, herein lies the problem. As soon as anything about Australian history is brought up, against colonisation, against the free-settlers and against the convicts and the first fleet people who do not want to face the realities or find our history too disturbing usually start down the black arm band of history tune, thank you former Prime Minister John Howard, for pointing that term into the lexicon–suddenly for talking about this I am suddenly un-patriotic, un-Australian.
When did patriotism in Australia become something other than to look at the Americans, point and laugh and mock their unflinching hand on heart, declaration of independence attitude?
When did Australia become such a blatantly hand on your heart, draped over the flag kind of patriotic place? Much like the UK we are, well we were famous for our nonchalance and our weariness and suspicion over acts of patriotism and nationalism, remember the good old days when we used to laugh at all the red, white and blue flag waving American crap and say ‘only in America?’ where has all of that gone?
According to University of Queensland Associate Professor in Australian History Martin Crotty, Australia Day now rivals Anzac Day as the symbolic bearer of the country’s supposed national characteristics – namely equality, mate-ship and sacrifice.
According to Crotty ‘by 2001 and the centenary of federation, then Liberal prime minister John Howard’s campaign of encouraging Australian patriotic fervour was flourishing. “Show The Flag on Australia’s Day” promoted Howard’s particular brand of nationalism. “When you come to this country, you become Australian,” he said. Howard’s term in office (from 1996 to 2007) coincided with the rise in nationalistic fervour.
Crotty experienced this momentum personally: “I’m a migrant myself (from New Zealand). I actually arrived here on Australia Day 1994 and I can tell you no one gave a bugger about it then. I’ve seen the feeling of nationalism grow exponentially over the last 22 years.”
He argues that the rise in patriotism under Howard was not accidental: “There (was) a general resistance to refugees and a very self-confident celebration of Australian nationalism under John Howard’s premiership, he gave it a real boost.” Writes Susan Johnson, Courier Mail, January 2017.
Howard’s speeches in this period, Crotty goes on to say, ‘could have come straight from the mouth of an American president, such as one in 2001 in which he spoke of ours not being “a tradition of brutality or triumphalism, it is a tradition of being willing to sacrifice all to do the right thing in the cause of freedom’.
According to Dr Elizabeth Kwan, author of Flag and Nation: Australians and Their National Flags since 1901, Kwan talks about ‘market research surveys charting Australians’ growing awareness of Australia Day went from 75.2 per cent in 1980 to 99.6 per cent by 2007, which marked the end of Howard’s time in office’.
According to the Reconciliation Council of Australia, ‘broader Australia has a poor understanding of the history of 26th January, which helps to explain why not everyone views the celebration of this date as problematic. Seven in 10 voters say Australia Day is important to them but a majority of the population can’t accurately name the event it commemorates’.
The Reconciliation Council, goes on to say, that ‘according to a poll conducted early in 2017, this year by market research company Review Partners. When a representative sample of voters was asked to identify the historical event marked on Australia Day from a list of six possible alternatives, only 43 per cent correctly named the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. One in five said Australia Day commemorated the discovery of Australia by Captain Cook while one in six said it was the anniversary of Federation. Smaller proportions said the national day marked the date of a treaty with Indigenous people (7 per cent), the date Australia stopped being a colony of Great Britain (6 per cent) or the date of an important battle in World War I (2 per cent)’.
However, a poll done, only in the last few weeks, by Research Now also reveals that only about a third of Australians — 37 per cent —realise the date is offensive to Indigenous Australians, it represents the commencement of the British colonisation that led to the dispossession and persecution of Australian Aborigines, which as we can see is a considerable decline from a survey done not even a year ago.
The survey of 1417 people suggests that nearly all Australians — 84 per cent — think it is important that the country has a national day of celebration.
So, who actually cares in the mainstream that Australia Day is celebrated on January 26th?
‘‘I’m disappointed by those who want to change the date’ – Malcolm Turnbull.
Prime Minister Turnbull went on to say, that ‘we recognise that the history of European settlement in Australia has been complex and tragic for Indigenous Australians. We recognise all the complexities and challenges of our history’ A free country debates its history, it does not deny it … I’m disappointed by those who want to change the date of Australia Day, seeking to take a day that unites Australia and Australians and turn it into one that divides us’.
‘I support Australia Day staying on January 26’ I understand there’s a range of views about when Australia Day should be. I’m on the record as supporting Australia Day staying on January 26 … I can respect that different people have different views. You’re not going to see me sneering at Indigenous Australians who want to have a discussion about a different date for Australia Day. – Bill Shorten.
‘I’m very confident that ultimately we will see Australia Day changed’ – Richard Di Natale (the Greens).
Launching a renewed push on 15 January, the Greens leader said: ‘Australia Day is a day that should bring our country together. At the moment, it is a day that divides Australia. We are at the starting point of a conversation and I’m very optimistic that over time we will see momentum for this change grow … I’m very confident … that ultimately we will see Australia Day, the date changed’.
‘(It’s)Like asking them to dance on their ancestors’ graves’ 26 January could not serve as a unifying national day of celebration, because: Asking Indigenous people to celebrate on January 26 is like asking them to dance on their ancestors’ graves … Changing the date is a relatively simple task that can have an immense symbolic impact in demonstrating to Indigenous Australians that the broader community wants a national day where all Australians can celebrate together—The chief executive of Reconciliation Australia, Karen Mundine.
“January 26th is a reminder of pain and loss” – Richard Weston, CEO of the The Healing Foundation is the peak body for members of the stolen generations and is focused on addressing the inter-generational trauma caused by colonial practices. “Australia needed to be a country “that is mature enough to own its past and determine its future, inclusive of all Australians”. He went on to say, “for most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, January 26th is a reminder of the pain and loss caused by 230 years of dispossession, dislocation and mistreatment. It is impossible to celebrate when it brings to mind the deep hurt borne by our ancestors and how that suffering continues to impact today”.
Award-winning Indigenous author Melissa Lucashenko (recently announced as the winner of the prestigious Copyright Agency Author Fellowship) says that it’s fine to celebrate Australia Day as “soon as the Jewish community starts celebrating Hitler’s birthday and just as soon as Ireland throws a big potato famine party”. I do firmly believe Lusaschenko has a fairly valid point here. Lucashenko, went on to say, “do Native Americans in the USA celebrate the massacres or the genocide? No, they celebrate Thanks Giving Day, when Native Americans helped the starving and disease ridden pilgrims find food and joined them in a great feast; and of course they celebrate the 4th of July, to a point as well. Do Armenians celebrate April 1915 when the Ottomans began their attempted genocide on Armenian Christians for helping the allies in the first world war? Do the Irish or the Scots, or the Welsh Celebrate their many invasions and wars with the English?”
In the Susan Johnson, article, she quotes Lucashenko, as she argues that while history is important, it’s also about today and the consequences of that history. “People in the Kimberley have the highest recorded suicide rate on the planet – not just in Australia, in the world. It’s about our children being shackled and hooded (at the Northern Territory’s notorious Don Dale Detention Centre), it’s about now, not just 1788,” she says.
Lucashenko went further to say that the’ #changethedate…is like rearranging the deck chairs on The Titanic. It’s just a sop to the liberal conscience to change the day. You don’t undo two centuries of attempted genocide with a goodwill gesture. You repair the damage and achieve justice through a process of treaty and reparation and then one day we might become a nation we can be proud of.”
So, if all of this research data is accurate that the majority of Australians either don’t care what day, Australia Day is on, nor does it seem that most people even realise what it symbolises—why can’t it be changed? As we have seen the day, the meaning, the recognition of Australia Day has been an event that has constantly been in a state of flux. Why does it have to be on the day that Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney Cove? There was a lot more to say about this controversial issue but I am afraid of making this thing longer than Lord of the Rings.
I understand and appreciate the groundswell and the Facebook memes and profile pictures with ‘change the date’; but that is in and of itself an empty gesture when, really what underlies all of this is the lack of understanding and acknowledgement of Indigenous Australian culture, of the past and present atrocities committed against Indigenous Australians. It is an inter-generational and inter-class denial of what went on under consecutive colonial-state-then federal parliaments
Once we acknowledge as a people, as a unified country the wrongs we have committed in the past, that will be the only way we can flourish and prosper in the future as a unified, commonwealth of people.
I know many people of European ancestry want to say things like ‘I didn’t do it. Stop living in the past’—here is a question to end on—many Australians for a very long time blamed successive generations of Germans, Italians and especially the Japanese for the horrors of the Second World War—in 2011 Japan formerly apologized to surviving Australian PoW’s.
What would the price if Australia apologized to our Indigenous brothers and sisters? What is the price of national pride?
So, what would happen if we changed the date of Australia Day—right here, right ow, very, very little, until real acknowledgement, real reconciliation is made.
Post-Script: I was going to talk more in depth about the crimes and atrocities committed against Indigenous Australians—but here is a useful Wikipedia link that will take you to the relevant sources: https://trove.nla.gov.au/list?id=35229, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-05/new-map-plots-massacres-of-aboriginal-people-in-frontier-wars/8678466, https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/myall-creek-massacre-1838,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_of_Indigenous_Australians.
SOURCES: Courier Times. Perth News. AAP. Australian War Memorial. Adelaide Times, ABC and Guardian online.