What is Australia Day - and why is it controversial?

Attendees of the Australia Day parade in Melbourne in 2019 Source: AAP

The 26th of January is Australia's national day. But what does Australia Day actually mark and what are the objections to it?

The 26th of January marks the day in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, beginning the British colonisation of Australia.

Now commemorated with a public holiday, millions see it as a time to celebrate all that they love about being Australian.

But for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, it's a day of pain.

Across the country, tens of thousands of people spend the 26th of January participating in 'Invasion Day' events.

Pakana man Adam Thompson is a Community Education Worker at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, and organiser of Devonport's Invasion Day rally.

He says Invasion Day means different things to different people, with some using it to honour those killed by white settlers during the Frontier Wars.

"It's a date that marks the invasion of our country by the British, and the celebration of a national day on that day, January the 26th, is offensive to us, and it's a barrier to reconciliation. And myself and many people around the country are calling for Australia Day to be moved to another date that can be inclusive of everyone."

The campaign to change the date of Australia Day has gained momentum across wider society in recent years, with an Australia Institute poll in 2018 finding 49 per cent of respondents believe the national holiday shouldn't be held on a day that's offensive to Indigenous people.

Mr Thompson says changing the date of Australia Day would be a step in the right direction towards mitigating the effects of colonisation and improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

But he says non-Indigenous Australians need to get on board if the movement is to succeed.

"It's important for people to understand that we are not against the celebration of a national day. Aboriginal people more than anyone have a deep appreciation for our beautiful country. And of course, we would love to celebrate living here, but just on a date that doesn't represent an horrific turn in our history."

In 2017, Yarra City Council in Melbourne's inner east became the first local government authority in Australia to change the way it marks the 26th of January.

It voted unanimously to stop referring to the date as 'Australia Day', as well as ceasing to hold citizenship ceremonies on that day.

Yarra Mayor Misha Coleman says the change was made after years of lobbying and advocacy from community members about the way the council managed the day.

"The 26th of January has only been the national Australia Day since 1994, so to those people who say, you know, 'it's always been this way,' it's not actually the case. So it's a relatively recent initiative to have the 26th of January as the national holiday and we don't feel wedded to that date at all."

Ms Coleman says this year, the council will mark the day with a reflection on the life of Herbert 'Jock' Austin - a much respected and admired leader of Melbourne's Aboriginal and sporting communities.

"I'm aware of at least 10 local couple authorities across Australia who have made changes to what they do or don't do on 26th of January, and I'm really, really proud that Yarra provided that leadership. I hope one day in the future, the federal government might provide some similar sort of leadership."

Dr Andrew Peters is a Wurundjeri man and Senior Lecturer in Indigenous Studies at Swinburne University.

He says the way Australia Day is observed has changed markedly over his lifetime.

"Early days when I was a young boy, we didn't really celebrate it much at all, to then it becoming a public holiday on the Friday, which for me always meant a day full of sports: cricket and tennis. And now it's become much more of an historical event, I think, and that's, I think, led to the discussions that we have now."

Dr Peters says while he acknowledges that the 26th of January is a very painful time for many other Indigenous people, he's less concerned about the date Australia Day is held on, and more about how it's celebrated.

"It's simply just acknowledging what came before January 26, 1788. That there were some negative impacts to the arrival, but there have also been a lot of positives that have come out of it, and they're the things that we should be focused on and celebrating, and including, you know, in celebrations and speeches including all people from all cultures, particularly focusing I guess on Aboriginal people as the first Australians, and then including, you know, migrant groups, refugee groups and all of those sorts of things that, that now come together to make the Australia that we know and love."

For Mununjali man Shawn Andrews, the 26th of January is a day of healing.

He's the M-C of this year's Belgrave Survival Day - an event in Melbourne's outer east that celebrates the enduring culture of Australia's First Peoples.

"Our culture is very strong still and what what we're finding is that probably the few things in our culture that are sort of coming back a lot stronger now that haven't been there as strong over sort of contemporary history is our dance and our language and stuff like that. We've got the Djurri Djurri dancers, which are the local women's group dancing, and it's actually quite, it's quite a positive day."

Held on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people, the event will also feature a smoking ceremony, a panel discussion from elders and community experts, music, food, and workshops.

Mr Andrews says talking about the pain associated with colonisation and sharing culture can go a long way towards healing the scars of the past.

"It's one of the few environments that's really... it's so really special because it doesn't matter what Aboriginal country or mob you come from, on that particular day, we're all there together. We all share together and we share with the white fellas and non-Indigenous people. And we we open our arms and say, 'Hey, this is a horrible day for us, but if you come in and you share our pain, we can make it quite positive and we can move forward and move through it'. That's the power of Survival Day events."


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