This is not intended as a comprehensive guide to the crimes committed against black Australians, nor is it meant to supplant the multitude of indigenous voices speaking out against January 26. This will cover a brief history, and then suggest a solution to the impasse of this date, as we move forward as a single nation.
This was written on Dharawal land. It contains links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.
A national day of celebration should be a date that can be celebrated by all citizens. It should represent something significant, meaningful, and unifying. It should not be a glorification of the invasion of a sovereign land by a foreign, occupying force.
The date of Australia Day must be changed.
What’s the harm in celebrating Australia Day on January 26? For a start, there are the massacres and genocides committed against indigenous Australians – Appin, Myall Creek, Coniston, Bathurst, Convincing Ground, Gippsland, Whiteside and Kilcoy, Tasmania, the Stolen Generation, the NT Intervention, deaths in custody, slavery, the list goes on. The Waterloo Creek massacre of at least 50 Kamilaroi people took place on January 26 1838, the semicentenary of Arthur Philip raised the Union Jack over Sydney Cove. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and it only refers to killings, it doesn’t touch on the diseases and the disparity in health and life expectations that exist in modern Australia.
There were as many as 1,250,000 Aboriginals in 1788. By 1930, there were 50,000. Men. Women. Children. Driven over cliffs. Murdered by cannon fire. Shot on sight. Drowned. Poisoned. Bayoneted. Bodies strung up as a warning. Remains sent to museums.
This is the history we are celebrating on January 26.
If you don’t have white skin, then this date, celebrating the day white Europeans settled here as an outpost of the British Empire, isn’t a date that can be held up as some pseudo-sacred tradition. As a date, January 26 infers a position of nationhood as being wholly derived from European extraction. As a tradition, the Australia Day public holiday has only existed since 1994, spurred on by the relative success of the bicentenary celebrations. There had been a number of sporadic public holidays before this, the first being in 1818. The first Day of Mourning was held in 1938.
It took two hundred and four years, from the arrival of the First Fleet to the Mabo Decision, to overturn an absolute denial of any ownership of a land that had been inhabited for over 50 millennia. One of the first major pieces of legislation passed in this nation was the White Australia policy – in place for seventy-two years. For the first sixty-six years of federation, the Constitution enshrined in law the notion that Indigenous Australians were not to be counted as human beings.
The point here, Australia has had a long and complicated history of racism, and the tighter we hold on to January 26, the less likely we are to do anything to create an atmosphere of inclusion for all Australians. Even now, certain politicians are making hay from stirrings in conservative media about “African Gangs”, despite all evidence to the contrary.
This isn’t to say Australians, as individuals, are racist, but there is a long-standing system of government policy and positioning that has come from a racist origin, conscious and unconscious biases defining what Australia would mean for decades.
So, what will changing the date mean? Well, if the only thing that happens is ditching one public holiday for another, it will mean nothing. It will exist like Kevin Rudd’s apology and Triple J’s Hottest 100, just another exercise in empty tokenism – don’t get me wrong, Australians love tokenism. Think of how we get behind White Ribbon Day while actively defunding women’s shelters and doing nothing to address domestic violence in real terms.
Or the now defunct Recognise campaign, the quintessential tokenist approach to reconciliation – top down, paternalistic and designed by white men – and, of course, when it was rejected in favour of the Uluru Statement, all offers of reconciliation were taken off the table.