It is Australia Day so I had better say something. If you don’t already know, there has been much debate in the Australian community about whether Australia Day should continue to be held on January 26. On 26 January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney Cove to establish a penal colony for the British Empire.
In the years that followed British colonisation, the new settlers to this land conducted a campaign of near-genocide on the first Australians.
“Prior to European settlement, best estimates suggest that the Aboriginal
population was likely to have been between 300,000 and 1.5 million,
consisting of around 600 different tribes speaking more than 200 distinct
languages and located primarily along the food-rich coastal regions and main
river systems. The Aboriginal population declined dramatically following
European settlement, as a consequence of conflict, disease and a declining
birth rate. By Federation in 1901, the Aboriginal population was estimated to
have fallen to around 94,000.“
A key milestone in the establishment of Australia Day as our national day came in 1871. This marked the formation of the Australian Natives’ Association. The Australian Natives’ Association was formed as a friendly society to provide medical, sickness and funeral benefits to the native-born [ie. Australian-born] of European descent. The Association became a keen advocate of a national holiday on 26 January. In other words, it was the descendants of the invaders (for want of a better word, or maybe it is the best word) who advocated for a national holiday to mark British colonisation and their place in the sun.
Australians are proud of our British ancestry (or so I’m told). It wasn’t until 1984 that Australians ceased to be British subjects (unless entitled to dual citizenship), and it was a full 10 years after that a national public holiday was instituted on 26 January to mark our special day. Prior to that, the Australia Day holiday was held on a Monday around that date, so that we could all enjoy a long weekend; Australians love their long weekends. Many Australians made the best of the change and also took their annual holiday on the days on either side of the 26th, so that we could have an extra-long long weekend. For the full timeline of the history of Australia Day see here.
As with many things, events and celebrations do evolve with the times. Now I’m told (mostly by our politicians) that Australia Day is not just a chance to enjoy a public holiday, catch a rock concert and attend the fireworks, but is also an opportunity for all Australians to celebrate and honour, well, ourselves, and our Australian values; values like freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity. This is despite many First Australians seeing 26 January as a national day of mourning, rather than a day of inclusion. See also Uluru Statement From The Heart.
Many Australians, not just First Australians, are uncomfortable about recognising January 26 as Australia’s national day. There is growing support across the Australian community to either abolish Australia Day, or at least, change the date.
I must confess I still have reservations about the date. Notwithstanding that the date disenfranchises our First Australians, it seems perverse to celebrate our national day on the anniversary of becoming a penal colony. Most other countries celebrate their national day on the anniversary of when they became free of their colonisers (see here). We do things a little differently here.
I do not feel proud of my British heritage (it just is). I do feel horrified that my ancestors murdered indigenous Australians (my ancestors actually did). I feel saddened that my right to freedom of speech – to criticise the date of our national day – is lambasted as being divisive or as political correctness gone mad.
Or maybe I’m just miserable. In 2017, our (then) deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Barnaby Joyce, had this to say about those who opposed Australia Day being held on January 26.
“Today is a day about celebration,” said Mr Joyce. “I’m just sick of these people who every time they want to make us feel guilty about it. They don’t like Christmas, they don’t like Australia Day, they’re just miserable … and I wish they’d crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit … This is a great country. Aren’t we lucky? If this isn’t worth celebrating, what is?” The Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on Radio 2GB as quoted in The Australian
Yes, that’s probably it. But somehow or other, I don’t feel miserable. I feel Australian (whether lucky or not). It is home. Changing the date is not a denial of our history. It’s an acknowledgement of the harm caused. That’s all – just an acknowledgement.
Revised and reposted for the Ragtag Daily Prompt — Nation.