Australian Actress Shareena Clanton raises her hand during a protest organized by Aboriginal rights activists on Australia Day in Melbourne, Australia on January 26, 2017.

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A movement is growing in Australia to change the country's national day from January 26

For some Indigenous people, Australia Day is known as Invasion Day

CNN  — 

Australia’s national day, held on January 26 every year, isn’t all beer and barbeques.

While many see it as a day to celebrate the Australian lifestyle, for others it’s a painful reminder of death, disease, and cultures now lost forever.

Australia Day marks the arrival of the First Fleet into Sydney Cove in 1788, a date which is mourned by many indigenous people.

“We see it as Invasion Day,” Warren Mundine, chairman of the Australian Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, told CNN.

Tens of thousands of indigenous people were killed during the colonization of Australia, both deliberately and through disease and starvation. The British considered the continent to be “terra nullius” or “nobody’s land,” despite the estimated 750,000 to 1 million indigenous people living there at the time.

“The 26th of January is the day that the British came to invade, which led to massacres, the loss of land and the destruction of Aboriginal societies,” Mundine said.

“We see that as a bad date and we’d like to see another day selected.”

Revellers celebrate Australia Day in Melbourne in 2014.

Division and dispute

The First Fleet arrived in Australia on January 26, 1788.

Australia is one of very few former British territories to mark the date of colonization as a national day of celebration.

Originally commemorated only in Sydney, Australia Day is now celebrated nationally and has become increasingly patriotic in recent years, Australian National University professor Frank Bongiorno told CNN.

“People wear flags or paint them on their faces in a way which was probably less common 20 or 30-years ago,” he said.

As nationalism has increased, so has the opposition – in 2016, hundreds of people marched in regional capitals across the country, waving Aboriginal flags and banners with slogans such as “National day of mourning.”

According to a January survey by Essential Media, Australia Day is a “day of national pride” for 60% of those surveyed while 19% either think it is a day of reflection or irrelevant in the 21st century.

“It is a bit of an uncomfortable day because it does bring up divisions within the community,” Mundine said.

“(Indigenous Australians) do want to have a day of celebration, we do want an Australia Day to be celebratory, the only problem is that the 26th January is about division.”


A movement to change the date of Australia Day is gaining momentum.

Mundine told CNN he wants a day that all Australians can commemorate.

“(One) for all Australians, whether it be recent arrivals or people who have been here for thousands of years, to come together to celebrate the achievements of the country,” he said.

Warren Mundine (left) with former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Several celebrities have come out in favor of the change, and the hashtag #ChangeTheDate has gained traction on social media.

The West Australian city of Fremantle even decided in 2017 to move their celebratory fireworks to January 28, two days after Australia Day.

But it isn’t a simple debate – Tom Calma, co-chairman of NGO Reconciliation Australia, said it would be better to educate young Australians about both the good and bad aspects of January 26, rather than choose another date.

“There’s a place for recognizing that we have been dispossessed but having an alternate day isn’t going to change that,” he said.

“Maybe the argument is we change the meaning of the 26th of January to one that is more inclusive and people can get engaged with, celebrating Australia as a continent, as an entity in itself.”

Deputy Australian Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told the ABC people anyone who wanted to move the date were “miserable, gutted people.”

“I wish they would crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit,” he said.

Despite growing support for the idea, Bongiorno doesn’t think it will happen anytime soon.

“I can’t see it disappearing or being moved or anything along those lines. Australia doesn’t have an obvious founding moment,” he said.

“I suspect the 26th of January will survive and you know, the debate and criticism around it, I see that as part of a healthy democracy.”