First fleet of 11 convict ships from Great Britain arrived in Sydney Cove.
First fleet of 11 convict ships from Great Britain arrived in Sydney Cove.
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Why Australia Day is really held on 26 January and the push to change the date

A brief history of Australia's national day and the growing campaign to change the date.

Published Thursday 25 January 2018
By Myles Morgan
Australia Day is marked on 26 January every year with a national public holiday.

It’s a day “for all Australians, no matter where our personal stories began, [to] reflect on being Australian, celebrate contemporary Australia and recognise our history,” according to the National Australia Day Council.

Many in Australia traditionally celebrate it with a BBQ and for thousands of people each year - almost 13,000 in 2018 - it’s the day they officially become Australian citizens at ceremonies held around the country.

Australia Day celebrations.
Traditional Australia Day celebrations. Source: SBS

But for some Indigenous people - and an increasing number of non-Indigenous people who stand in support of them - it’s a day of mourning.

Why 26 January?

It’s the day the First Fleet landed in Australia, right? Nope.

In fact, a whole week before (sometime between 18-20 January 1788) men of the First Fleet had already set ashore at Sydney’s Botany Bay. On finding it unsuitable, they relocated further north to Sydney Cove - a small bay in the now iconic Sydney Harbour.

The 26th actually marks the raising of the Union Jack in Sydney Cove and the official declaration of British sovereignty on the land that would become Australia. 

First fleet of 11 convict ships from Great Britain arrived in Sydney Cove.
The First Fleet arrives at Sydney Cove. The British would later found the penal colony and first European settlement in Australia. Source: State Library of Victoria

But we’ve been celebrating it since 1788?

No. Well, not in its current form anyway. Australians have been celebrating Australia Day near enough since 1788, but in different ways and on different days.

In early colonial Sydney, it was referred to as ‘First Landing Day’ or ‘Foundation Day’. But for 200 years, the other states commemorated their Australian-ness on Regatta Day (Tasmania), Proclamation Day (South Australia), Empire Day, and several other days.

“In the first few decades, it was very much seen as a New South Wales event,” Melbourne University History Professor Joy Damousi told SBS News ahead of Australia Day in 2018.

“It was really not until 1935 that all the states celebrated Australia Day in the way we know it.”

Even still, the 26 January public holiday was only declared in 1994.

Why do some see it as a ‘Day of Mourning’?

In a sense, there are two Australias; the land occupied for more than 50,000 years by Indigenous people before the arrival of the First Fleet, and the Australia that was colonised in 1788.

To some First Nations peoples, the Australia they knew ended on 26 January 1788. The colonisation of Australia was brutal; massacres took place, communities were oppressed, land was taken. Stories of the Stolen Generations have been widely documented.

It wasn’t until 2008 that then-prime minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised to Australia's Indigenous communities over historic government policies of forced child removal and Indigenous assimilation.

As such, some refer to 26 January as .

On 26 January 1938, Aboriginal people gathered in Sydney to mark a ‘Day of Mourning’. Organiser Jack Patten said they were protesting “against the callous treatment of our people by the white men during the past 150 years.”

'Day of Mourning'.
'Day of Mourning'. Source: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)

On Australia Day 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year, tens of thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians marched in protest.

“The 26th of January will always be a day of mourning and a day of lament for my people,” Aboriginal pastor Ray Minniecon told SBS News before Australia Day 2018.

“It was a deliberate invasion of our people. It also meant the massacres and genocides of our peoples right across this country.”

1988 bicentennial protest.
1988 bicentennial protest. Source: SBS

Labor MP Linda Burney, the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, has said it is an “extremely painful day” for Indigenous people, and told SBS News she was glad conversations about changing the date are happening.

Who else wants to change the date?

Over the last couple of years, the grassroots movements to change the date of Australia Day have been backed by bigger political campaigns. The Greens drew national praise and condemnation when they signalled an official priority for 2018 was to change the date.

“Australia Day is a day that should bring our country together. At the moment, it is a day that divides Australia,” Greens leader Richard Di Natale said.

Other moves have caused controversy. The ABC's national youth radio station Triple J announced in 2017 it would move its popular Hottest 100 countdown from 26 January after 60 per cent of listeners surveyed said it should out of respect for Indigenous Australians.

Fremantle Council voted in late 2016 to cancel its traditional Australia Day celebrations out of respect to Indigenous people. Melbourne councils Yarra and Darebin also voted to cancel their citizenship ceremonies on 26 January for the same reasons. NSW's Byron Shire Council has since moved parts of their festivities from 26 January. Each has been fiercely criticised by the federal government.

“I think it shows Australia maturing as a nation and coming to terms … with the violent past of this country,” Professor Damousi said. “Where will it all end? I think, in years to come, you’ll find a more of an acceptance of the history we know happened.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull at an Australia Day Citizenship Ceremony in Canberra, on Australia Day 2017. Source: AAP

Who wants to keep Australia Day as it is?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists Australia Day belongs on 26 January and should not change. 

Like his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, his government took swift action to punish a local council that moved its festivities by stripping the council of its right to hold citizenship ceremonies. 

"Australia Day is 26 January. That was the day that Australia's course changed forever," Mr Morrison has said. 

"You don't pretend your birthday was on a different day ... you look at your whole life's experience. Your achievements and a few scars and from some mistakes and things that you could have done better." 

Mr Morrison has suggested a second national holiday, specifically for recognising the history of Indigenous Australians, but has not proposed a date for it. 

And former prime minister Tony Abbott left no one in doubt as to how he felt last year when he said the arrival of the First Fleet was “a good thing” for Aboriginal people.

Labor also supports the current date of Australia Day.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said: “I think that my first priority for Indigenous Australians is to close the gap [in Indigenous disadvantage].”

Will the date change?

A 2018 poll by The Australia Institute found , so long as there was a national day of commemoration, while 49 per cent said it shouldn’t be on a day that offended Indigenous people.

But, another poll released by the Institute of Public Affairs, found 70 per cent of people surveyed wanted to celebrate on 26 January.

Parliament would have to approve a new national public holiday though, and it doesn’t appear there is enough support for that to happen at this stage.

Which other date could people celebrate on?

All of this talk about changing the date raises one obvious question: what are the alternatives?

“There are other dates to look to, to celebrate, to identify the coming together of the Australian nation,” Professor Damousi said. “In the past, we’ve had Anzac Day as a suggestion for it. There have been other dates like the formation of the federation on 1 January 1901; 9 July, when Queen Victoria gave consent to the Constitution of Australia [or] the Eureka Stockade on 3 December.”

A number of other options have also been floated: The anniversary of the apology to the Stolen Generations (February 13), Sorry Day (May 26), the anniversary of the 1967 referendum (May 27), during NAIDOC week (beginning the first Sunday in July), and the anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (13 September).

For 2019 though, Australia Day remains on 26 January.

Australia Day Cupcakes
Source: iStockphoto

This article was originally published in January 2018 and updated in January 2020.