Australian flag
Australian Flag (source – Australian Parliament House website)

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.

Founding
“The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788” / Original [oil] sketch [1937] by Algernon Talmage R.A.  (Digital Image courtesy of  the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)
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.

fireworks
Photo Courtesy of Macquie

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.

national day of mourning
Aborigines day of mourning, 26 January 1938 (Digital Image Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales)

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 PromptNation.

39 thoughts on “What a Difference A Date Makes

  1. I’m afraid we British, and I am a native-born one, have a bad record in every country we’ve colonised although I don’t think the Spanish, Dutch or French have too much to be proud of either.

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  2. I agree with your concerns and similar concerns are being expressed in Canada. The current Federal Government has a contentious policy of Reconciliation with First Nations, designed to correct the wrongs of the past. I agree with reconciliation but some Conservative politicians object strongly. The Canadians Government’s reconciliation policies would improve basic services such as providing clean drinking water on reserves, enhanced health services on remote reserves. and to compensate families for the impacts of residential schooling that aimed to ‘’take the native out of the child’ also to compensation for children taken from their families and away from their culture and adopted in homes far away. Righting such wrongs and many other wrongs are resisted by some politicians. Some see that grave harm was done but contentiously other disagree with compensating historical and modern harms. It is currently an on going debate regarding the path forward.

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    1. It is a very similar story here, Sid. It would be nice for a change if our elected representatives could agree on a bipartisan approach to improving the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. First Australians have recently called for a voice (to Parliament) enshrined in the Constitution. First Australians of course had no role in the development of the constitution and were not even recognised as citizens when the constitution was developed. This call has been rejected outright by the current Australian government. I guess we will soon find out how the government plans to provide for a ‘voice’. The government has already made it clear that it opposes changing the date of Australia Day, and it appears that there will be no change unless there is overwhelming support from the Australian community. This type of support does not seem achievable in the current fractured and aggressive political climate.

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  3. All these days are just made up BS. Here in the US there’s a lot of noise about Columbus Day (as was) saying that Cristopher Columbus brought VD to the innocent and sweet indigenous people of the part of South America where he landed, and that he was such an idiot that he didn’t even know where he was. Native Americans protest passionately against Columbs Day with fake gravestones in public places marking the genocide of native Americans.

    As for me, I understand the point of view but I don’t buy it. First of all when Columbus sailed, there was no way to measure longitude so most people sailing into unknown waters and navigating by the sky had no way to know how far they’d gone. It’s pretty amazing that anyone succeeded in arriving anywhere across the open ocean, but they did. The “innocent native people” weren’t so innocent and yet, somehow, we’re able to accept the things THEY did (such as live sacrifice of virgins and the incredible tortures perpetrated tribe vs. tribe) because they were NATIVE people. They weren’t even native people. Like the rest of us on this side of the world, they came from somewhere.

    Far, far, far better (IMO) to accept that we all have no idea what’s going on, we never have, and we never will. The best we can do is make amends where we’ve hurt someone, something. History is just a fucked up bloody mess, but so is our present moment which is really our problem. Sigh. ❤

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    1. I agree, Martha. I was impressed by the Australian Muslim community taking their barbecue to one of the fire affected areas recently. So maybe we could do a national barbecue day instead? Even vegetarians do barbecues, don’t they? So then we could all appreciate being together. Not compulsory though because the introverts may prefer to have a day at home.

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    2. I think people can feel better about the mess of US history if they oversimplify, overgeneralize, and engage in black-and-white thinking–’cause it’s easier than facing complexity, ambiguity, and ambivalence. Sigh indeed.

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  4. https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/voices/culture/article/2018/01/23/many-different-dates-weve-celebrated-australia-day
    the above link is really worth a read in regard to the dates of Australia Day. Most people are unaware that Australia Day has only been a national celebration since 1994. Now doesn’t that put all this malarkey about changing the date into a different perspective. Yet when is this mentioned by the media in large amounts.
    Christmas Day is not actually the date of Jesus of Nazareth birthday so biblical scholars say.
    It is more a pagan festival date. so I personally do not like either date for celebrating things that are not really correct.

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    1. Thanks Tazzie. That is a great bit of additional information on how each state celebrated their version of Australia Day on different dates. I had forgotten much of the history myself until researching this piece a few years ago. I think many would be surprised to learn, or be reminded of, just how modern a phenomenon a 26 January Australia Day actually is. It might even shift a few people’s position on this if they knew the history better.

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      1. It is weird to me how determined the Federal Government has been for so long about changing the date. Too me it is just a continuation of abuse to our indigenous community.

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  5. A very interesting post and equally interesting discussion among the comments. I too have struggles with US history and our treatment of Native Americans. There is no easy answer and unfortunately politicians seem wrapped around issues that are more important to them including, of course, their own re-election.

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  6. The class system was thought by some to limit opportunity for some persons because of their station in life. A system was proposed to base access to opportunity on merit, or a meritocracy. Most universities in Canada have about an acceptance rate of about 65% of applicants and fees of about $7,000 per university year for Canadian citizens. These are top tier institutions. Elsewhere in the world some top tier universities admit fewer than five or six percent of applicants with perhaps $50,000 in fees per university year or more. The graduates of such exclusive universities such Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and others offer greater opportunities to their graduates than graduates of second tier universities with modest fees. It appears that the goals of Meritocracies might be distorted by economic status, family connections to a particular university, needing to have athletic ability while others are excluded because of one’s gender, ethnicity and other biases based upon stated or unstated views by section committees and the policies they apply. There are some that will argue that this is not the case and that their admission was based entirely upon merit and not a matter of influence or entitlements.

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    1. 🙂 I see that Australia is not the only country where controversy stalks its national day. Thanks for the information, Irene. I love your reflections (and research) on history. Now end of school day (for the year) is something to really celebrate. I think Australia should move Australia Day to end of February to mark the official end of our summer. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be the end of this nightmare as the unofficial end of summer comes increasingly later.

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    2. $50k p.a doesn’t seem to go with meritocracy. Seems to go with privilege. The notion that Ivy League universities are more worthy than other universities also seems to be about privilege IMO. Not that there aren’t good people who go to both, but a $50k (and/or special deals) price tag doesn’t sound like a recipe for diversity. In Australia, we have the Group of 8 (unis). Like Canada, fees are regulated which at least makes the playing field a little more even. Prestigious universities do attract a large number of applications, and therefore I guess they can be a bit more picky, but no-one thinks you can’t get a really good education or post-graduate qualifications outside of those 8 universities. I guess that matches fairly closely with what Canada offers?

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      1. Yes I agree with you. Canada attracts many international students to participate in the Canadian Educational System which is a provincial jurisdiction. The International students pay fees and depending upon their ages reside in home stays or in university residences or in homes owned by their parents. Perhaps their parents come to Canada with them. Canadian educations are expensive for International Students. I think the Australian Educational System is similar to Canada’s offering. There are challenges to Canadian students living in remote rural communities having the same educational experiences as those living in urban communities. Much of Canadian education for Canadian students is without fees charged for elementary and secondary education but it is hard to find teachers wanting live in these remote communities. While the goal appears to be equality of access how this access functions community by community is variable.

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  7. In Canada, July 1, 2017 marked 150 years since the “Dominion of Canada” was formed with only four provinces; it was not until 1982 that July 1st, known as “Dominion Day” became “Canada Day”, when the Constitution Act enacted the Canadian Chart of Rights and Freedom. Also, the youngest territory to be formed was Nunavut, when the region officially separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999 to recognize different aboriginal groups. So, was it really the sesquicentennial anniversary, or the 35th or the 18th? To tackle the issue, some provinces, such as BC, called the celebration “Canada 150+” (since aboriginal groups were here before 1867; in addition, four holidays were highlighted in some parts of the country: June 21, National Aboriginal Day; Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day on June 24; Canadian Multiculturalism Day on June 27, and finally Canada Day on July 1st.

    I guess technically it should be called “Modern Canada Day”, or something like that; I would not mind changing the name, but I would not like to change the date because it naturally marks the end of the school year, and it is a great way to celebrate the beginning of the true warm season in most parts of Canada.

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    1. I see that Australia is not the only country where controversy stalks its national day. Thanks for the information, Irene. I love your reflections (and research) on history. Now end of school day (for the year) is something to really celebrate. I think Australia should move Australia Day to end of February to mark the official end of our summer. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be the end of this nightmare as the unofficial end of summer comes increasingly later.

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  8. I can completely understand that this is more a day for mourning than for celebration and hope there’s going to be a solution that honours, acknowledges and respect all people involved. It must be horrible knowing that your own ancestors belonged to those who harmed First Australians, it must be a heavy burden to carry. These days we remember Ausschwitz in Europe, and of course especially in Germany. There’s a lot of fear going on that younger generations might forget about it and we must do all that we can to prevent that from happening.

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    1. I’ve only just found out, Sarah. Also, I’ve not long known about the relatives either. I wish I could find out more, but the journal I saw was borrowed by another family member and its whereabouts are now unknown. There are parallels with Ausschwitz. How can we guard against making the same mistakes if the history is lost in time. How we can even confront the reality of that past in the face of those of those who now seek to deny that these events even occurred? You can see why burning books and destroying indigenous sacred sites (and the story lines they contain) might have appeal in more than one way to some members of the community. Anyway, better shut up now … The soap box is a sad and lonely place. 😦

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