The Date Debate

Celebrating Australia Day on 26 January is becoming more controversial as the momentum for the 'Change the Date' campaign grows.

Australia Day on 26 January has been an official national public holiday since 1994. The day marks the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillips raising of the Union Jack in Sydney Cove in 1788, signifying the beginning of a British colony.

The anniversary has been referred to as 'Foundation Day' or 'First Landing Day' as early as 1804 and by 1935 all states and territories termed the day ‘Australia Day’. While governments and settlers celebrated the day, as early as 1938 Aboriginal leaders gathered to protest their mistreatment and sought their right to full citizenship, labelling the day the 'Day of Mourning'. As Australia Day's bicentenary celebrations took place in 1988, Aboriginal people and their supporters marched in protest across Sydney's Harbour Bridge, dubbing the day 'Invasion Day' as they mourned the loss of their culture.

Former Premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett demonstrates the changing social perspectives on Australia Day's date. Previously, the current President of the Hawthorn Football Club publicly opposed the Green’s ‘Change the Date’ movement. Having now worked closely with The Torch, an organisation assisting Indigenous offenders, Kennett has expressed that while he believes “January 26 does not represent the day of invasion” but rather “the day of settlement”, he does understand that “for many in the community, it represents the day they were dispos- sessed and brutalised. I agree with them”. However, Indigenous politician Linda Burney warns the movement to change the date “could end up being more divisive than helpful". About the debate, Luritja man Lance McDonald commented: “They [white Australians] don't want to change the day, because it's the start of their grandparent's arrival. We want to change it ‘cause we been here a long time before then”. The 'change the date' dogma is summarised by the Australian Greens' Richard Di Natale: “It’s a day I want to celebrate because I am proud of this country, but I will never be able to celebrate Australia Day on January 26 when it brings so much hurt and suffering to Aboriginal people”.

Many believe that we must move on from the past toward a united future, especially since the Apology to the Indigenous Peoples in 2008. Alex Hawke, Assistant Home Affairs Minister, believes that the “historical importance of the events at Sydney Cove is real, it’s part of our history” and that he has not yet heard “a reasonable argument about why [we] should change the date".

National polls have consistently reported that the majority of Australians do not believe the date needs to be changed from 26 January. However, new polling revealed that only 38 percent of Australians correctly identified the event that Australia Day marks. Most importantly, while polls report that up to three quarters of Australians don’t agree with changing the date, a wide Research Now survey revealed that 56% don’t actually mind which specific date our national day falls on, as long as we have one.

Suggestions for revised dates to celebrate Australia Day include 1 January, the anniversary of Federation in 1901 when the states became the Commonwealth of Australia; 9 May, the anniversary of the first meeting of the Commonwealth parliament in 1901; and 27 May, the anniversary of the national referendum in 1967 where 91% of Australians voted to include Indigenous Australians in the census, finally recognising them as citizens of a united nation.

"At the end of the day, all we want is a day where we can all celebrate what it means to be Australian and this wonderful country we live in and call home together" - Jessie Bronson, organiser of ‘January 26th’, Darwin.

Did you know?

More than 16,000 new citizens typically chose to have their citizenship ceremony on 26 January, they are generally the main feature of Australia Day celebrations for local councils who conduct the ceremonies. For 2019, City of Boroondara have seven ceremonies scheduled, including their largest one on Australia Day.

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