Welcome to Dig Deeper, a content series allowing you to dive as deep as you like into topics that are underserved in the current media landscape but need and deserve more coverage and attention.
Its purpose is to shed light on important community-based issues facing minority groups. To start with, we’re having honest and open conversations around January 26, the national mood and changing the date.
It’s once again time for that annual argument; what day should we celebrate Australia?
The history of Australia, and the history of its national day, is fraught with controversy and suffering. There are a tonne of good reasons why the calls to change the date get louder each year and there is growing recognition amongst the non-Indigenous population that January 26th is not the date to celebrate. Many First Nations people, of course, need no convincing — they have always known this.
If you believe that the date should be changed, and you’re outspoken enough to come into conflict with friends, family, or strangers about this topic, you’re probably aware that the ensuing conversation is not the easiest one to have.
So, here’s our guide on how to navigate the change the date conversation and what to say to someone who is steadfast in their belief in Australia Day being celebrated on January 26.
Why Do We Celebrate This Day?
It’s a simple question with a long and complex answer. As with most conversations about sensitive topics, the best thing you can do is listen – those arguing for the date probably aren’t doing so on the basis of the flimsy historical argument.
Australia Day, and the narrative around it, is wrapped up in deep political issues and concepts of identity. What it means to be an Australian in 2023, what our history says about us, and what kind of country we want to be moving forward.
When someone has a strong opinion about the date, ask why. Why this date and why does it mean so much to them to celebrate Australia in this way? Because it really has very little to do with anything other than tradition — and an incredibly short tradition at that.
The date itself is, of course, a symbol. Like the US Declaration of Independence — which was also not actually signed on the date it’s celebrated — it allows interpretation and projection as a national monument, but there’s really very little logic to it.
January 26th is definitely not the date that Captain James Cook first stepped on shore at Kamay, on the southern edge of what would later become known as Botany Bay, after shooting at the locals who were trying to discourage their landing. That happened on April 29, 1770.
Neither is this date the first time that any European first set foot in the country we now call Australia – that would be the Dutch, in 1606, although some say the Portuguese, Spanish, or the French got here first.
It’s not even the date that Captain Arthur Phillip himself first landed in Australia. He arrived on January 18th in Kurnell but found the soil poor, the anchorage lacking, and the fresh water non-existent. So, he sailed around the coast and into what we now call Sydney Harbour.
January 26 is in fact the date that a British camp was first established on the Eora lands at Warrane — later to become known as Sydney Cove or Circular Quay — after a few officers and marines got off their boats and raised the British flag. The colony itself wasn’t even formally proclaimed until February 7th. The vast majority of the 1,530 prisoners, soldiers, officers, and their families watched the flag go up from the boats they were still sitting on.
This makes January 26 a somewhat significant date to the people of Sydney and, arguably, NSW, but almost no one else. Prior to the federation of Australia in 1901, all other states and territories had dates that they celebrated the founding or formation of their own jurisdictions. Of course, NSW, being the first point of European colonisation, is significant in national history, but it doesn’t follow that we have to celebrate on this day.
In fact, it was only around 1808 that January 26 began to be celebrated by a select elite of emancipated convicts who used it as an excuse to get drunk and revel in their good fortune — while many others weren’t enjoying such wealth or privilege. It was referred to then as First Landing Day or Anniversary Day
‘Australia Day’, as celebrated on Jan 26, really got its start in 1946 after it began to merge with another Australia Day movement that first started as an effort to raise funds for World War I veterans. This tradition spread but wasn’t officially adopted until 1994 across all states and territories.
The point is that, aside from tradition, there isn’t really a good reason as to why we celebrate this date – acknowledge it, sure, but we’re the only country in the world that has a party on the day we were violently invaded.
When’s the Date to Celebrate Then?
Almost any other date would be suitable, although most dates of historical significance in Australia are wrapped up in colonial domination and have similarly problematic connotations.
A large part of the reason why there is resistance to changing the date is that it’s nice to have a public holiday during January, the peak of summer, and an excuse to enjoy the weather. That’s fine, but there are other dates that also fit these criteria.
January 1st has been suggested, as this is the day, in 1901 when the country was first officially federated. However, being already a public holiday for New Year’s Day, it’s not likely to fit the bill.
You’ve also got February 7th, the date on which the colony was officially proclaimed in NSW, although this too has deeply colonial overtones.
Moving into March, and slightly away from the warm weather, you’ve got March 3rd, when all powers of the UK parliament were ended over Australia, effectively making the country legally independent in 1986.
The original Australia Day, cooked up in 1915, was held on July 30th, although this probably won’t appease the barbecue crowds and doesn’t have much historical significance.
Then you’ve got May 27th, the day when the referendum to remove clauses in the Constitution that discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was passed in 1967. This is, effectively, the day we all became equal (in theory) in the eyes of the law.
There is also the suggestion of July 9th, the date when Queen Victoria accepted the Constitution of Australia in 1900.
None of these is likely to satisfy everyone, nor are they without their problems, but continuing to celebrate the date that marked the beginning of the horrifying and ongoing suffering of the original inhabitants of this continent isn’t sustainable either.
Who Actually Wants the Date Changed?
National polling in support of changing the date reflects the growing acceptance and understanding of the issues at hand. However, there is still strong support for keeping the date as it is.
In 2004, a poll found that only 15% of respondents wanted the date changed. By 2021, that percentage had increased to 28%. Only a minority 48% of people did not support the date change, while the rest remained neutral.
It’s unavoidable that this issue has become a political one, with those on the left of politics wanting the date changed far more than those on the right. Younger people are also much more in favour of the date change than older people.
A 2019 study found that socio-demographic factors are a big indicator of whether or not someone supports changing the date. Those with university degrees and living in capital cities are most likely to agree with the change whereas those without degrees living in rural areas are most likely not to.
“Australians place a high value on the current date while being mindful of its negative connotations,” the report reads.
“It is an important marker in the calendar and our attachment to this one last summer public holiday before the school year starts again generally outweighs any offence caused to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”.
“Support for this view comes from previous research which shows that when Australians were asked to associate three words with Australia Day, the most commonly chosen words were ‘barbeque’, ‘celebration’ and ‘holiday’”.
So, while we appear to value the party elements of the date more than the historical and cultural, those impulses appear to be waning as more understanding and recognition of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and indigenous culture emerge.
This makes continuing to have these conversations more important than ever.