Boycotting Australia Day? How Businesses Are Shifting Our Understanding of 26 January

It’s January in Australia and that can only mean one thing: The annual argument over the meaning, nature, and appropriateness of 26 January celebrations is getting underway.

This year’s controversy is, of course, the fact that one of the nation’s biggest supermarkets has declined to stock ‘Australia Day’ merch this year. Woolworths and their sister company Big W will not be supplying any specific new products for Australia Day, outside of the flags they carry all year round.

“There has been a gradual decline in demand for Australia Day merchandise from our stores over recent years,” a spokesperson for the company has said in explaining the decision.

“At the same time, there’s been broader discussion about 26 January and what it means to different parts of the community.”

The backlash to the decision has been as manufactured as it is predictable. Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, has led calls for a boycott of Woolworths, arguing that the PM should “call it out” along with other companies who pursue a “woke agenda.”

“Until we get common sense out of a company like Woolworths I don’t think they should be supported by the public,” Dutton told 2GB Radio.

Federal frontbencher Murray Watt hit back at Dutton on Today, accusing him of missing the big picture on issues affecting people today.

“I think what this week has really shown is that Peter Dutton has just got completely the wrong priorities, especially when it comes to supermarkets,” Watt said.

“Dutton’s just out there starting another culture war about Australia Day and about thongs and flags”.

Despite the attempt to score base political points, the nature of Australia Day appears to have irreversibly changed. This latest argument is unlikely to move the needle into reverse, particularly given how big the shift has been in the last few years.

That support for the ‘true blue’ interpretation of Australia Day is slipping is no surprise. Guardian Essential polling last year found that 57% of people would either support changing the date or having another day to respect the occupation of First Nations people. Just 27% of people said that they would be specifically be celebrating Australia Day in 2023, with 50% saying they thought of it as just another day off.

However, other polling has found that around two-thirds of the country is in favour of keeping the date and the day, although that’s down from 80% at the start of the century. Typically, it’s the younger generations who want the date changed, suggesting a future where Australia Day is no longer recognised as January 26th.

So, whether or not businesses are simply moving with the times or pursuing a ‘woke agenda’ isn’t clear. Whatever the reason, we appear to have already crossed a tipping point in the debate as, last year, the number of people, organisations, and businesses boycotting Australia Day increased exponentially.

Woolworths is certainly not the only company to change its tune on the date – in fact, if anything, they’re behind the times.

Which Companies Aren’t Supporting Australia Day?

The question this year seems to be ‘who is’?

Aside from Woolworths, Aldi has also confirmed that it won’t be selling Australian flag merchandise in the lead-up to Australia Day this year. Coles, on the other hand, has confirmed that it will be stocking a (carefully worded) “small range of Australian-themed summer entertaining merchandise throughout January.”

Whether or not an expression of national pride needs to be made with marked-up flags, thongs, aprons, and other tat bought from a supermarket is perhaps mooted by the fact that all of it is made in China anyway – a point that hasn’t escaped many.

To make matters worse for the pro-Australia Day team this year, the High Commissioner to the UK has also cancelled the flash, black-tie Australia Day event in London over sensitivities and costs. Dutton also likened this change to the day itself being cancelled by an unelected bureaucrat.

All of this is very much par for the course. This year’s retail aversion to the date follows the mass shift in 2023 when the Australian Open, cancelled its Australia Day celebrations after Indigenous players spoke up against it. Cricket Australia has ignored the date since 2021.

Kmart, also in 2023, said that they would no longer be selling any Australia Day merchandise to be “inclusive and respectful to all.”

The Victorian government last year also did away with its annual Australia Day parade in Melbourne, instead hosting a quieter, more reflective event.

The government last year also gave local councils the option of moving their citizenship ceremonies to within a few days of 26 January should they choose to do so. This is a decision that is still irking some in 2024, making the hosting of citizenship ceremonies a further flashpoint.

Although Albanese was criticised as “cancelling Australia Day by stealth,” this was actually a repeal of a Morrison-era policy that fixed the date, making it difficult for some councils to carry out.

While the Federal Government has stated that they have no plan to change the date of Australia Day, it appears that more companies are opting into the idea that this might not be the most respectful date to celebrate.

Working on Australia Day

Outside of corporate standpoints, there is a growing number of private, commercial organisations who are increasingly giving people the option to swap their ‘Australia Day‘ leave for another date if they don’t want to have a holiday on January 26th.

The University of Wollongong last year joined the ranks of the telecoms giant Telstra, who instituted a similar personal-choice policy at the end of 2022. The same is true of Woodside Energy, BHP, and consulting firm KPMG. The rest of the big four consulting giants, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PwC have done the same for years, as has the super fund Australian Ethical. Legal firm Herbert Smith Freehills has also implemented the policy.

Network 10 made headlines also at the end of 2022 after an internal email from company-owners Paramount ANZ told staff that “January 26” was “not a day of celebration.” All Paramount staff, including those at Network 10 and elsewhere, have since been given the choice not to recognise the date.

“We recognise that January 26 evokes different emotions for our employees across the business, and we are receptive to employees who do not feel comfortable taking this day as a public holiday,” the email read.

Woolworths, at the centre of this year’s firestorm, gave their 160,000 staff the same choice last year. Woolies workers now receive a day in lieu if they work January 26th.

“We think it’s up to each team member to mark the day as it suits them and our priority is creating a safe and supportive environment in our stores and sites,” a Woolworths spokesperson said at the time.

Why Changing the Date Isn’t the Answer

January 26th, marking the day Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney Cove at the head of the First Fleet and planted the Union Jack in the soil, has increasingly been recognised as a poorly-chosen date for celebration. It forever ties the founding of this country to genocide and oppression of First Nations people.

Changing the date is one option, but it’s a simplistic solution that won’t achieve real change for First Nations people. Instead, many are suggesting a more pluralistic interpretation of the date, with the option not to celebrate or recognise it as one alternative.

Australian clothing brand SPELL is one such company. Since 2021, has been one of these organisations that allows its employees the option to swap their public holiday on January 26th. SPELL’s staff have the option to have a day off instead on May 26th, National Sorry Day.

SPELL’s Co-Founder and Chief Branding Officer, Elizabeth Abegg, told The Latch that the change was in alignment with their “company values” and described it as “our way of acknowledging the need for wider (Government) change as well as at the request of some of our employees”.

They note that they sought advice on the change from an Indigenous cultural expert, who suggested giving employees the option to take the leave whenever they wanted, but, as a company, having a single day allows for a “smoother” process.

“What we see as important is to consider the meaning of the date and understand why January 26th is not in line with true reconciliation,” Abegg said.

The company is in favour of a date change for Australia Day, but says that, in the meantime, they will opt to honour Indigenous people by making this adjustment.

“We would love to be able to openly celebrate our diverse nation including our incredible First Nations people. Being able to be part of the land that has the oldest and richest living culture in the world should be the biggest celebration of all.”

Related: Reframing the Date: Jack Latimore on Our Nation’s Annual Argument

Related: Playing Politics: Why Labor Won’t Move Australia Day

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.