Australia Day: a controversial celebration


Today, 26 January, is Australia’s national day. It is a public holiday commemorating the arrival of the first European fleet in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.

Every year, it is an occasion for Australians to celebrate their country. Jeremy Lasek, director of the National Australia Day Council however acknowledges that not everyone agrees on the date.

“It is true that some Australians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, have been struggling with this date for a long time. The debate resurfaces every year. For now, it’s the date we have and a strong movement would be needed to change it. But we are not aware of there being any will on the part of the government to do that.”

According to the National Australia Day Council, 65 per cent of Australians celebrate 26 January. The festivities usually include family barbeques, the raising of flags, fireworks, parties in parks and gardens, etc. “It is a day when we want to celebrate our multicultural past and our diversity with respect and mutual understanding. We encourage Australians to celebrate the day in their own way,” says Jeremy Lasek.

Luke Pearson, founder of IndigenousX, a Twitter account with a different Indigenous Australian host every week, is looking for a date to replace 26 January through the #newaustraliaday hashtag.

He explains: “We have been denouncing this date for almost a century, since 1938, in fact, when William Cooper declared it a day of mourning.”

“We need to hold a national debate on what we want to be as a country. 26 January reminds us of the White Australia policy. If we want to fully recognise our multicultural society then it is absolutely essential that we find a better date.”

Joe Williams, an Indigenous boxer and former rugby league player, was nominated for the Australian of the Year Awards in the town of Wagga Wagga.

Every 26 January, tribute is paid to Australians who are the pride of their country. For Williams, receiving recognition on “Invasion Day” is an honour that is difficult to appreciate.

“I am very honoured that my work to raise awareness about suicide in Aboriginal communities is being recognised. But 26 January is not the right day. It is a day when many Aboriginal people were massacred. It is a day that marks the beginning of the attempt to wipe out our culture. I’m not an extremist, but you wouldn’t celebrate a national day on the day of the Holocaust! Fortunately, there are fewer and fewer racists and bigots in Australia,” he tells Equal Times.

Chris Graham, editor of the media outlet New Matilda, recalls that Australia Day had almost come to an end. “Prior to 1988 and the bicentenary celebration, there was talk of bringing it to an end. But since 1988, it has become popular again. In 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had promised to change the date. But he didn’t do it in the end.”

According to Graham, many Australians are still not aware of the controversy over 26 January. “Many of my fellow citizens are not familiar with our country’s past. They are not aware that this date can cause offence.”

Today, whilst many Australians will be celebrating the settlers’ arrival 228 years ago with a beer, others will be demonstrating in front of the parliament in Melbourne alongside the Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance (WAR).

Their aim: to honour the memory of the Aboriginal resistance fighters and all those massacred during the country’s colonisation.

This group, founded in 2014 during the G20 in Brisbane, is calling for Aboriginal sovereignty over their lands. Meg Rodaughan, of the Jaadwa people, lists their priorities for Equal Times: “To resist, to revive Aboriginal cultures and to decolonise our lands.”

For this 28-year-old woman, 26 January is a violent day. “We feel excluded on our own land. During Invasion Day, the streets are filled with Australian flags, which, for us, are tainted with Aboriginal blood.”

Meg’s family had long been in denial about its Aboriginal culture, but this future midwife reconnected with her heritage a few years ago.

“My great grandfather and my grandfather had black skin. They were confronted with a great deal of racism. With my fair skin, I find myself caught between two worlds. It’s a very complex identity. I am not a victim of racism but my friends with dark skin are stopped by the police all the time.”

Callum Clayton-Dixon, a young Aboriginal activist known for having entered Australia with an Aboriginal passport, has been taking part in the resistance demonstrations in Brisbane for three years.

“Being a young Aboriginal person in 2016 is exciting and very challenging at the same time. It is encouraging to see more and more young Aboriginal people getting involved in resistance and in the revival of our cultures.”

For Clayton-Dixon, the only date that could become a national day would be the day a treaty is signed between the Aboriginal peoples and the Australian government.

Clayton-Dixon takes New Zealand and the treaty it signed with the Maoris in 1840 as an example.

Rodaughan, for her part, concludes: “26 January is a day of mourning. But it is also the day when we, the Aboriginal peoples, show that we are still here and we are here to stay.”


This story has been translated from French.