Australia Day, Invasion Day, Survival Day: What's in a name?

Survival Day? Australia Day? Invasion Day? Day of Mourning? Feeling confused yet? We explain the history and meaning behind these different names for January 26.

On Survival Day 2015, at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Redfern.

On Survival Day 2015, at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Redfern. Source:

Australia Day?

Australia Day is Australia’s national day commemorating January 26, 1788, the date on which Captain Arthur Phillip raised the flag of Great Britain and proclaimed a colonial outpost of the British Empire in Port Jackson, later Sydney Cove.

Though the day had been marked formally as ‘Foundation Day’ in the early years of the colony in New South Wales, the collective nation of Australia didn’t formally begin until federation on New Year’s Day, 1901.

Discussions about holding a national day were raised in the early 1900s and by 1935 all Australia states and territories had adopted the term ‘Australia Day’. However it wasn’t until 1994 that the whole country began to celebrate Australia Day on January 26 with a national public holiday

What do we celebrate?

To many, Australia Day is a day of celebration of the values, freedoms and pastimes of our country. To some, it represents new beginnings and gaining citizenship in a country of relative peace and freedom. To others, it is a day to spend at community events or at a barbeque with family, friends and a game of backyard cricket.

The National Australia Day Council was founded in 1979 and coordinates many of the events that are held including the Australia of the Year Awards. They state that on Australia Day we ‘celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australia. It's the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation… the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future.’


Invasion Day?

For some Australians, particularly among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, January 26 is not a day of celebration, but is seen as a day which commemorates the invasion by British settlers of lands already owned.

A day of mourning:

In 1938, on the 150 anniversary celebrations, William Cooper, a member of the Aboriginal Progressive Association, and other activists met and held a 'Day of Mourning and Protest'. 

For many the day involves recognising the history of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the trauma caused by government policies of assimilation and separation that saw many people removed from their traditional lands and culture.

This also includes recognition of the violence of the Frontier Wars, a period of conflict between settlers and Australia's Indigenous peoples, which lasted from 1788 up until the time around the Coniston massacre in 1928.

Nakkiah Lui, a Gamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander actor and playwright, wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian explaining why she refused to celebrate the day but instead viewed it as a day of mourning.

"We mourn the declaration of Australia as terra nullius (land that belongs to no one) as well as those who have died in massacres, those who were dispossessed of their land and homes, those were denied their humanity, those who were shackled, beaten, sent to prison camps, and made to live in reserves."

Indigenous sovereignty:

Invasion Day is also seen as an opportunity to assert the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. Each year, marches are held in cities around Australia protesting the 'celebration' of Australia Day and calling for sovereignty and social justice for Indigenous Australians.

In 2013, Tasmanian activist and lawyer Michael Mansell spoke of refusing his nomination as Senior Australian of the Year for Tasmania to the Guardian.

"Australia Day is a celebration of an invasion which resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Aborigines. To participate would be to abandon the continuing struggle of my people."

Mansell also called for further action in the area of sovereignty: a treaty including land settlement provisions, designated government representation and a separate Indigenous Assembly.  


Day of Mourning?

The first Day of Mourning was held in Sydney in 1938, the 150th anniversary of the First Fleet landing in Sydney Cove. Participants marched in silent protest from Town Hall to the Australian Hall in Elizabeth St. After this, a meeting was held with around 100 people attending.

Day of Mourning 1938

At the meeting, President of the Aborigines Progressives Association, Jack Patten read the following resolution. 

"We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman's seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community." The resolution was unanimously passed. 

Following the meeting, several attendees went to La Parouse, where several memorial wreaths, prepared by Pearl Gibbs, were floated to sea in a gesture symbolising 150 years of loss and oppression.



Change the Date?

The timing of the celebration is seen as of particular concern as it marks the date of colonisation, unlike other countries which celebrate their national day on their day of independence or on another special day. For example New Zealand celebrates Waitangi Day on 6 February, commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the settlers and the local Maori people in 1840.

Lowitja O’Donoghue who was awarded Australian of the Year in 1984 pleaded for dialogue about changing the date of Australia Day.

"Let us find a day on which we can all feel included, in which we can all participate equally, and can celebrate with pride our common Australian identity."


Survival Day?

For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Australia Day is also an opportunity to recognise the survival of our people and our culture. Despite colonisation, discrimination and comprehensive inequalities, we continue to practise our traditions, look after the land and make our voices heard in the public sphere. We survive.

The 1988 Bicentenary of Australia saw a large protest in Sydney in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians marched together. Activist Gary Foley described it as black and white Australians coming together in harmony that represented Australia as it could be.

Campaigner for Reconciliation and Australian of the Year in 2000, Gustav Nossal spoke about the potential for Australia Day to celebrate and respect Indigenous people and their history.

'The great majority of Indigenous people want to live in one Australia; want to share in its destiny; want to participate in and contribute to its progress; but at the same time, want the recognition and respect that their status and millennia old civilisation so clearly warrant.'

In contrast to Australia Day events, which have historically been organised with little or no consultation with local Aboriginal people, the first Survival Day festivals were initiated by Aboriginal communities in Sydney and marked a celebration of our achievements and culture. Today many Survival Day events are held around the country, celebrating our people, culture and survival.

Mick Dodson, law professor and Australian of the Year in 2009, spoke to Koori Mail about the community support behind this recognition of Indigenous people.

'Ninety per cent of people are saying Australia Day should be inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. I firmly believe that some day we will choose a date that is a comprehensive and inclusive date for all Australians.'

NITV presents a selection of dedicated programming, special events and news highlights with a focus on encouraging greater understanding of Indigenous Australian perspectives on 26 January. Join the conversation #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe

Published 10 May 2021 at 5:52pm
By Karina Marlow