Shortcuts / 23 January 2020
What the date marks, how it evolved, the argument for and against moving it, and what our leaders think.
What does Australia Day mark?
Australia Day is held annually on the 26th of January, on the anniversary of the First Fleet arriving in Sydney Cove in 1788. It was there that Captain Arthur Phillip raised the flag of Great Britain – the Union Jack – to signify the beginning of the new British colony. The First Fleet was a fleet of eleven ships carrying convicts from England along with shipmen and marines. They’d travelled over eight months to reach our shores. Interestingly, a survey back in 2018 showed that only 43 per cent of Aussies knew exactly what the day commemorated, with many getting it confused with Captain Cook’s discovery of Australia back in 1770. But in fact, Captain Cook had been dead for a few years before the First Fleet arrived here.
What was Captain Arthur Phillip’s vision for Australia?
There to found a penal colony, Phillip had visions of this part of the world becoming an important party of the British empire. And when it came to settling in with the first Australians, he had orders from the King of the day to live in harmony alongside the indigenous population. He was to “conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them.” And if that was broken, there were to be serious consequences those who had come from afar to Australia. But of course, that vision didn’t play out so romantically, with the First Australian’s significantly impacted by the arrival of the British.
How did Australia Day come about?
From the date that Phillip raised the Union Jack, the 26th of January was known as First Landing Day or Foundation Day and was often celebrated by early settlers in Sydney over dinner and drinks. But Australia Day – though its not how it was known then – was first declared an annual public holiday in NSW in 1818 by the colony’s Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Australia did not become a nation until 1901 with federation. And in the 1930s, there was a campaign to have 26 January celebrated throughout the country as Australia Day on a Monday, making it a long weekend. So it’s about 1938 that we can trace the start of what we know as Australia Day. Fast forward to 1988 – the bicentennial anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet – that really cemented Australia Day as we know it now. That’s also when Indigenous rights groups started called it ‘Invasion Day’, with a thousands-strong march and protest concert held at Bondi Pavillion that year.
What do the Australian public have to say about changing the date of Australia Day?
Australia Day has long been disputed. On the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the raising of the Union Jack in Sydney Cove in 1938, Aboriginal leaders met in Sydney for a Day of Mourning to protest at their mistreatment by white Australians and to seek full citizen rights. So while the debate is not new, the Change the Date campaign has seemed to recently gain traction. But there’s a lot of qualitative feedback rather that quantitative. And it is a divisive debate. But a survey published by Research Now for the left-leaning Australia Institute in 2018 said a majority of voters would not mind if Australia Day was shifted to a different date. On the other hand, polling conducted by Research Now in 2019 for the right-leaning Institute of Public Affairs said that only 10% of Australians think the date of Australia Day should be changed. The figure of 75% who think Australia Day should be celebrated on 26 January represents an increase from the 70% result from the same question asked last year.
What are the main arguments for changing the date?
That it represents the dispossession of indigenous people and violence of British colonisation, and a date that’s more inclusive should be found.
And what are the arguments for keeping the date on the 26th of January?
That is marks an important day in the history of what we know as modern Australia and it’s a day on which the overwhelming majority of Australians show their pride in their country and its achievements.
Who has the power to change the date?
Both major parties don’t support changing the date, so not a lot of work has been done on the mechanics of changing our national day. But public holidays are legislated, so there would need to be a process to decide on a new date, consult with with states and stakeholders, and get it through parliament. And given that it’s our national day, you’d have to think there would be an element of consulting voters too.
What has the federal government said?
On Australia Day, Councils across the country host events in towns and cities for Australia day. A central part of that has been hosting citizenship ceremonies. But a number of councils in recent years have canceled those ceremonies and other events in protest. So last year, the Coalition government floated a plan to force them to host citizenship ceremonies on 26 January, or they would be stripped of their right to hold citizenship ceremonies at all.
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