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Why We Need to Change the Date of Australia Day

In June 2020, following the death of Black man George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota in the United States, Black Lives Matter protests occurred around the world, including here in Australia. This movement spawned a number of much-needed conversations — including the ways in which systemic racism operates within this country.

At the time, many people pledged to educate themselves on what it takes to be an effective anti-racist ally and while this is life-long work, it’s important to refresh yourself on what this means — especially in the lead up to January 26.

For many people, this particular date means two things: a public holiday 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 this country, it shouldn’t come at the expense of our First Nations peoples. Seeing how this negatively affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 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 the chasm of systemic racism.

The origins of celebrating Australia Day on January 26 don’t actually 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.

Now, there are two lines of thinking when it comes to this date. One is to scrap the celebration completely, which given that the beginning of Australia is rooted in colonialism, is a fair argument. Cancelling the commemoration completely would move the conversation around racism forward in this country, while also highlighting the needs of First Nations peoples.

“It’s important to understand that colonialism is still ongoing, having an alternative date will still mean they are celebrating the colonial project here in so-called Australia,” Ruby Wharton, (Gamilaraay Kooma), member of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and the Brisbane Aboriginal Sovereign Embassy, told Clothing the Gap, a Victorian Aboriginal owned and led social enterprise. “We need to abolish Australia Day and change the discourse–it shouldn’t be a day of celebration but a day of remembrance.”

The second argument is to change the date of the Australia Day celebration, moving any sort of revelry away from a day that is devastating for Indigenous people. The opinions on these two options are incredibly mixed and each person has their own take on the issue. Kamilaroi man and Channel 9 sports journalist, Jake Duke told Clothing the Gap that he would like to see the date of Australia Day changed. “There are many other options that would be far more unifying and inclusive,” Duke said.

“Even if the date is a floating one every year–the same way Easter or the Melbourne Cup is decided. I still think it should remain in January so that people can enjoy a public holiday in summer and celebrate all the things that are great about being Australian. I would also like to see the January 26 marked as a far more sombre occasion. A day to reflect on the dark parts of our history, so we can move forward together as a nation.”

Not-for-profit organisation Australians Together has a similar train of thought, writing: “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.

“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 27 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 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”. 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 at the time. “Australia Day is our national day. The ABC should honour it and not mess with the Hottest 100.”

Four years later, triple j’s Hottest 100 is just as popular despite not occurring on January 26 and there’s barely been any discussion about the date change since. For all the outrage seen from politicians at the time, this change hasn’t undermined Australia Day or caused them 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 coming together on a different day and the public holiday would still take place. 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,” Sarra 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? Nothing. 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 helps to 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 brings the issue to the forefront.

From a political standpoint, there are a few options. According to the ABC, a Premier actually has the power to change public holidays in their state, so writing letters to bring this to the attention of your state government 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, saying, “Australia Day is 26 January. That was the day that Australia’s course changed forever”.

“You don’t pretend your birthday was on a different day… you look at your whole life’s experience,” Morrison said. “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, which is why pressure needs to be continually applied for them to listen. Write letters to your elected officials and demand change. Let your local MPs know that this is an issue that is important to you. Check out our tips for writing to your MP here.

Finally, when it comes to January 26, instead of organising a party with friends, consider attending an Invasion Day rally. These are held every year around the country and allow you to support First Nations people on an upsetting day. Consider also using January 26 as an opportunity to donate to an Indigenous organisation or charity, take in anti-racist resources and refresh yourself on how to support BIPOC in the long-term.

It’s time to rethink our decision to celebrate a day that is painful for so many.

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