The day before Australia celebrated its national day Friday, a statue of British explorer James Cook in Melbourne was vandalized, covered with pink paint and the words “No pride.”
Cook is often credited as the first European to discover Australia.
Every year Australia Day, held on January 26, is the focus of huge controversy and debate.
While many Australians see it as a chance to celebrate the country’s lifestyle, culture and achievements, typically through barbeques and public events, the date is not a happy one for Australia’s Indigenous people.
On the 26th of January 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip raised the British flag at Sydney Cove, beginning the long destruction of Indigenous people and their culture. In recent years there has been a call by left-wing groups to move the date to a less controversial day.
But the conservative Liberal National Coalition government has criticized any suggestion of a potential change of date, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Polling has given conflicting results on how Australians actually feel about Australia Day.
A poll commissioned by progressive think tank Australia Institute found 56% didn’t care when the national day was held, while a separate poll from conservative group the Institute of Public Affairs resulted in 70% support for keeping Australia Day on January 26.
Is it time for Australia to move its national day of celebration? Two prominent Australians weigh in on the debate.
Tom Calma, Co-chair of advocacy group Reconciliation Australia
‘It’s time to change the date’
Increased momentum around changing the date of Australia Day reflects a growing sense that January 26 is symbolic of the Australia we used to be, not the Australia we hope to become.
Recent moves to promote changing the date of our national day are informed by the fact that many Australians - both Indigenous and non-Indigenous - feel they cannot celebrate on January 26, because that date marks the commencement of a long history of dispossession and trauma for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
We’ve changed the date before – in fact, January 26 has only been a national public holiday since 1994 – and must do so again if we want to achieve a national day that unifies all Australians.
Still, there is a strong contingent of Australians who do not agree.
Before we can settle on a way forward, there is more work to be done in terms of raising awareness of the fraught symbolism of January 26, and what Australia stands to gain by changing the date of our national day to one that represents the shared values of modern Australia.
There are differing interpretations of what it means to celebrate on January 26. But what’s indisputable is the historical origin of the date.
Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove and raised the national flag of the United Kingdom on January 26, 1788. In doing so, he founded the colony of New South Wales and, at the same time, commenced the dispossession and marginalization of Indigenous people.
During this time, many Indigenous people were removed from their traditional lands, and stopped from practicing their language and culture.”
Another problem with holding our national day on January 26 is that it is a day that positions European settlement as the primary source of national identity and pride. In doing so, it ignores more than 60,000 years of pre-colonial history and 230 years of multicultural migration to Australia.”
Today, Indigenous peoples are still recovering from the chain of events that were set in motion on that day in 1788. The ongoing impact can be seen in disturbing rates of Indigenous incarceration and the growing overrepresentation of Indigenous children in out-of-home care, to give just two of many examples.
By changing the date, Australia can show that it is ready to truly accept and include Indigenous histories, cultures and contributions as a valued part of the Australian story.
Tony Abbott, former Australian Prime Minister
‘There are 364 other days to wear a black armband’
“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” asks the John Cleese character in the classic film Life of Brian.
It’s worth asking the same question of the British settlement of Australia at the same time as we acknowledge the dispossession of the original inhabitants.
Sure, not everything’s perfect in contemporary Australia; and it’s possible that Aboriginal life could have continued for some time without modernity bursting upon it, had governor Arthur Phillip not raised the Union flag and toasted the king on January 26, 1788, but it’s hard to imagine a better Australia in the absence of the Western civilization that began here from that date.
The rule of law, equality of the sexes, scientific curiosity, technological progress, responsible government – plus the constant self-criticism and lust for improvement that makes us so self-conscious of our collective failings towards Aboriginal people – all date from then; and may not have been present to anything like the same extent had the settlers fanning out from Sydney Cove been other than British.
We could all make a list of the things that should be better: trust in politicians, economic competitiveness, standards in schools, safety on our streets (especially in Melbourne), congested roads and inefficient public transport, and — yes — the well-being of the First Australians, but is anything to be gained by this annual cycle of agonizing over the date of our national day?
Besides, there are drawbacks to all the other contenders: too many people are the worse for wear on January 1, the anniversary of the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia; and Anzac Day commemorates an unsuccessful military campaign (led, you guessed it, by the despised British).
So let’s grow up and treat Australia Day as a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come as a country and, for those in public life, how far we’ve yet to go.