Is also known as Anniversary Day and Foundation Day, is the official national day of Australia. Celebrated annually on January 26, the day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet of convict ships at Sydney Cove in 1788, the unfurling of the British flag there, and the proclamation of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia.
The origin of Australia Day dates back to 1818, long before Australia formed as an independent nation, when the state of New South Wales was a military prison under Governor Macquarie and it was known then as ‘Foundation Day’. As other colonies formed they acknowledged different dates for each colony as their commemorative dates for when their colony was proclaimed.
Australia became its own sovereign nation much later from Great Britain on January 1, 1901 and had no national day at all until World War 1 in 1915 when July 30 was used. Over the next few years other dates of July 26, 27 and 28 were used. It was only in the 1930’s, a time with very different values to today, that January 26 started to be used more uniformly across states.
For many people, Australia Day is about celebrating the values, freedoms and pastimes of the big country of Australia. It’s a time for BBQs in the backyard, having a beer with mates, and proudly flying the Australian flag (and avoiding the deadliest creatures on the globe). On the surface, Australia Day seems to be about unifying all people who call Australia home, and yet ironically it’s a divisive day for many.
For many First Nations people, January 26 isn’t a day for celebrating.
Every year there is increasing controversy over whether January 26th is an appropriate date for an Australian national day that includes all members of our Australian community.
A mosaic of different First Nations cultures inhabitated all parts of the continent linked by a complex and rich array of trade routes, languages, cultures, spiritual beliefs and practices dating back 60,000 years.
First Nations people may be just as proud of this country as any other Australians, but many see January 26 as the commencement of two centuries of their culture and ways of life being assaulted systematically and often violently, particularly in the first century of Europeans being here, when the Frontier Wars saw many massacres, First Nations families separated, arbitrary imprisonment, disease epidemics, frontier violence, destruction of culture, exploitation, sexual violence and whole tribes forcibly removed to ‘reserves’
Consequently, some people (including many First Nations people) refer to January 26 by names such as Invasion Day, Survival Day and Day of Mourning.
- Invasion Day
For those who mark January 26 as ‘Invasion Day’, this date represents the British occupation of First Nations People’s land. Invasion Day events are held across the country and often include protests and marches rejecting the celebration of Australia Day on this date, and calling for sovereignty and social justice for First Nations people. “Australia Day is 26 January, a date whose only significance is to mark the coming to Australia of the white people in 1788. It’s not a date that is particularly pleasing for Aborigines.” Michael Mansell, Aboriginal activist
- Day of Mourning
Other people commemorate January 26 as a day of mourning, recognising the violence of the Frontier Wars, including massacres, rape and murder, as well as trauma caused by government policies of assimilation and separation, which removed many people from their lands, families and culture. The first ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ was organised by pioneering Aboriginal rights activist, William Cooper, in 1938, during Sydney’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. Day of Mourning protests have been held on January 26 ever since.
- Survival Day
Some First Nations people celebrate January 26 as Survival Day, an opportunity to recognise the survival of First Nations people and culture despite colonisation and discrimination. Survival Day events include festivals celebrating First Nations culture, taking pride in First Nations people’s achievements and showcasing artists and musicians. These events generally have a more positive atmosphere than Invasion Day and Day of Mourning events.
This history isn’t going to change. So we must change.
Should we change the date, save the date or cancel it all together?
This question can be challenging, as there are many different perspectives from both First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians.
- Saving the date means continuing to celebrate a date that’s painful for many people.
- Changing the date or cancelling the date doesn’t address the trauma and disadvantage that started at colonisation and still affects First Nations people today.
If we simply make a choice and move on, we miss the opportunity to understand where we’ve come from, where we are today and where we go from here, but change is the right thing to do.
Learning more about our nation’s shared history between First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians by reaching out, opening our hearts and being willing to change, can help us appreciate and reflect in a more informed way.
Honouring the most exceptional Australians
Since its inception in 1960, the Australian of the Year Awards has provided a focal point for Australia Day celebrations and a forum for the recognition of outstanding achievement.