Each year, it seems as if the conversation around changing the date of Australia Day becomes a little louder. While the next Australia Day celebrations won’t take place until January next year, this is a conversation that should be happening year-round.
In light of the Black Lives Matter protests that have been occurring in Australia and around the world, there’s never been a better time to bring yourself up to speed about this issue and why the date needs to change.
For many people, Australia Day means two things: a long weekend and a celebration consisting of booze, a BBQ and soaking up the glorious summer weather. For Indigenous Australians, this is a day of mourning called Invasion Day. The disparity between these two experiences couldn’t be starker.
While many Australians argue that we have much to celebrate about our country — and we do — this celebration shouldn’t come at the expense of our First Nations peoples. Seeing how this negatively affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should be enough for white Australians to understand the importance of changing the date. The fact that it isn’t is an interesting glimpse into systemic racism.
The origins of Australia Day don’t date back that far. According to the official Australia Day website, all states and territories didn’t use the name ‘Australia Day’ to mark the occasion until 1935. 1994 was the year that all Australian states and territories began to “celebrate Australia Day consistently as a public holiday” on January 26.
The conversation here isn’t about whether we should have a celebration or not, it’s about the day in which we choose to celebrate. A day, which for the Indigenous community, is painful and traumatic.
“It’s true, that as Australians, we should be able to come together and celebrate the things about our nation that we’re proud of and grateful for,” reads the Australians Together website.
“However, celebrating these things on the 26th January can divide us as Australians by marginalising and offending many Indigenous people who see this date as commencing a chain of events that had disastrous consequences for many Indigenous people.”
Australia Day has only been a public holiday and celebrated as a nation consistently for 26 years. Ask yourself this: are you more attached to the public holiday or the fact that the celebration must take place on January 26? If so, why is this date so special to you personally?
In 2017, national youth radio station triple j announced it was moving its annual Hottest 100 music countdown from January 26 to another date closeby. In this announcement, triple j said it could no longer ignore the issue after a recent survey conducted by the station revealed that 60% of listeners wanted the Hottest 100 moved to a different date.
“As the public broadcaster representing all Australians, Triple J and the ABC doesn’t take a view in the discussions,” Triple J said in a statement. “However, in recent years the Hottest 100 has become a symbol in the debate about Australia Day. The Hottest 100 wasn’t created as an Australia Day celebration.”
This move was criticised, with the Resources Minister at the time, Matt Canavan calling it “a disgraceful decision”, as reported by HuffPost Australia.
The former Federal Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, also joined the conversation, saying he was “bewildered” by the decision. Fifield also wrote to the Chair of the ABC urging the station to reconsider.
“The ABC shouldn’t be buying into this debate,” Fifield said. Australia Day is our national day. The ABC should honour it and not mess with the Hottest 100.”
Three years later, Triple J’s Hottest 100 is just as popular despite not occurring on January 26 and there’s barely been a discussion about the date change since. For all the outrage that came out of Canberra at the time, this change hasn’t undermined Australia Day or caused politicians to rethink the conversation.
A common argument about changing the date is questioning what it will actually achieve. For white Australians, changing the date will simply mean we celebrate on a different day. The long weekend would still take place and all of the revelries could continue.
For Indigenous Australians, changing the date would acknowledge the pain associated with January 26. Indigenous designer, artist and activist, Rachael Sarra, explained the importance of this on Instagram.
“The date change is like the key to your house, you need it to open the front door,” she wrote. “Changing the date is not the outcome nor is it a magical cure to generational trauma, but it is the key in changing mindsets.
“It’s key because changing the date of Australia is an invitation, it’s an invitation for us mob to feel at home in our own country. It is NOT a deportation letter to those who don’t identify. Changing the date is accountability, it’s saying that we f**ked up, real bad. But we are ready to rectify this.
“We are willing to look at our bias, and we are ready to put your needs first, because we know we could have done better. Changing the date is saying, we trust you to determine your own lives, we value your knowledge, and most importantly, it’s saying we don’t want you to hurt anymore at the hands of our celebration. Australia Day does not exist on January 26.
“January 26 is the legacy of the horrific past and the connection of this trauma to the present. Change the Date and we will dismantle the systems and structures that oppress us.”
By moving Australia Day to another date, what are we losing? Not much. By moving Australia Day to another date, what is the Indigenous community gaining? A lot.
So, how do we go about actually making this change? First of all, adding your voice to this conversation will make it a lot louder. Much like the work you need to do to become an effective anti-racist ally, having conversations about this with your family and friends will bring the issue to the forefront.
While many people feel inspired to do the work in order to become an anti-racist ally in light of the Black Lives Matter conversations that have been happening, we need to keep this momentum going. It can’t just be a focus for a week or a month, but something we continually work on.
From a political standpoint, there’s a few options. According to the ABC, a State Premier actually has the power to change public holidays in their state, so lobbying your State Government to do so is a start. You could also lobby your Local Council to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on January 26.
In 2016, Fremantle Council voted to change its Australia Day celebrations out of respect for Indigenous Australias, while Byron Shire Council in New South Wales has moved some of its festivities from January 26. According to SBS, Yarra Council and Darebin Council in Melbourne also voted to cancel citizenship ceremonies on this date for the same reason.
All of these decisions were criticised by the Federal Government at the time. And, our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, isn’t interested in changing the date either.
“Australia Day is 26 January. That was the day that Australia’s course changed forever,” Morrison 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.”
While it’s undoubtedly an uphill battle to get Governments to listen, it’s not impossible. The swift change occurring in the United States following days of protesting is a sign that people can cause change.
Finally, when it comes to January 26 next year, instead of organising a party with friends, consider attending an Invasion Day protest. These are held every year around the country and a simple Google search will point you in the direction of your closest rally.
It’s time to rethink our decision to celebrate a day that is painful for so many.