Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: What’s Australia Day?

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Australia’s national day has its roots in the country’s colonial past. It marks the day when the First Fleet of 11 British ships sailed into Port Jackson with Governor Arthur Phillip raising the British flag in Sydney Cove on 26 January, 1788. Many Indigenous Australians regard it as ‘Invasion’ or ‘Survival’ Day. How has the meaning of Australia Day changed over time?

‘Australia Day’ was first celebrated at a small gathering in Sydney in the early 19th century. Darwin-based historian Dr Elizabeth Kwan is the author of the essay “Celebrating Australia: a history of Australia Day”. She explains the original purpose of January 26.

“What was called ‘First Landing Day’ or ‘Foundation Day’ was to celebrate with a dinner in Sydney the beginning in 1788 of British settlement in New South Wales. So they were concerned with the survival of the colony because it hadn’t been easy, and that it was centered on Sydney. They were celebrating growth in prosperity, the love of Australia, ‘the land…we live in’ they called it, but also love of what they termed ‘The Mother Country’ that is Britain.”

Dr Elizabeth Kwan says after post-World War II migration from Europe, there was a growing realisation by the Federal Government they had to help all Australians relate with each other in a positive way.

“There still had to be an acknowledgement that had begun as a British settlement but there was a greater urgency to acknowledge the contributions that were coming from all over the world as well as from Indigenous aboriginal Australians so you find this growing attempt to balance celebration on Australia day with reflection and education so it saw quite a different side of Australia day coming through.”

In 1988 all states and territories agreed to hold Australia Day on January 26 and only in 1994 the day became a national public holiday.

The National Australia Day Council oversees the celebrations and awards. Council CEO Chris Kirby shares the results of a 2016 study on what the day means to people.

“And it showed that what most people are celebrating on Australia Day. These days, it’s how lucky we are to live somewhere like Australia. It is about bringing together friends and family to celebrate and to connect on the day and a lot of people talked also about the freedom we have in Australia. In particular, with a really high number of new Australians and recent migrants - that kind of real sense of opportunity and freedom is really what people are celebrating on Australia Day.”

Contemporary Australia Day is celebrated differently across the nation.

Chris Kirby says many Australians choose to spend the day with family and friends or by attending events.  

“Our national day is not like the days that occur in other countries. Its really relaxed its very much what people can make of it what they want. They range from aboriginal festivals of culture up in Coffs Harbour to huge multicultural parades down the centre of the Melbourne’s CBD to crazy Aussie outback events like thong throwing or cane toad racing so there’s a whole range of diff events that happen on the day.”

Citizenship ceremonies are also held on Australia Day where new citizens make their Australian Citizenship Pledge.

Chris Kirby says they celebrate our multiculturalism.

“It’s something that's been encouraged by the Department of Immigration. It really is a way of us celebrating the multicultural society that we live in, success of that multiculturalism, all of us other than first Australians are descents have arrived from other countries to me is a very apt way of marking our national day.”

On Australia Day eve, the Prime Minister awards outstanding citizens who have made a significant contribution to the community and country.

“They've been running since 1960 and originally they were just the Australian of the Year and now we actually have four awards announced each year. So there is Australian of the Year, the Senior of the Year, the Young Australian of the Year and also the Local Hero and really, the awards are all about celebrating the Australians that typify what we think Australia is about. It’s about that optimism, that tenacity that we see as part of Australian culture.”

However January 26 for many First Nations people represents ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’, marking the start of British colonisation.

Dr Chelsea Bond is a Munanjahli and South Sea Islander Australian who lectures at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit of Queensland University. She says many Indigenous Australians don’t celebrate on January 26.

“The fact that it is insisted that we celebrate a day which at worse has been a day of mourning for Indigenous people and at best, celebration of our survival in a world that was intent on destroying our way of life. I think that surely as a nation, there is a better day, a more inclusive day, where we all get to celebrate being a part of this nation.”

Chris Kirby acknowledges there are mixed feelings towards this day.

“What’s important is Australia day isn’t about telling people how they should feel, whether they should get involved or celebrate it. It really is from our point of view, a day where people should choose how they want to mark the day and it really is for me about reflecting on our past but also celebrating where we are and increasingly looking into what the future holds for the country.”

In a bold move to include Indigenous Australians, the City of Fremantle recently sparked controversy by replacing their Australia Day festivities with a new event called ‘One Day’ on January 28.

The council website states this decision came about in order to ‘celebrate being Australian in a way that included all Australians’. Dr Chelsea Bond believes nationwide Australia Day festivities should also take place on another date. 

“The failure to change the date thus far despite the calls by Indigenous people and many other Australians to change the date I think that speaks to the relationship of the power between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It speaks to the position of Indigenous peoples in this country. It tells us where we sit in this nation’s consciousness where something’s still not talked about, where the history that Indigenous Australians have experienced in this country is still something this country prefers to keep quiet about.”

"The history that Indigenous Australians have experienced in this country is still something this country prefers to keep quiet about.” - Dr Chelsea Bond

Dr Elizabeth Kwan says the day has become more reflective of today’s Australian society. 

“As we’ve seen from the evolution of Australia Day, it has been a working progress and the day and governments have responded to the way Australian society has changed perhaps too slow for some but it is a working progress. The more we can discuss it and involve everybody in that discussion the better.”