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Australia Day: A Contentious Celebration
Protesters march from Parliament House to Flinders Street Station, January 26, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Australia Day: A Contentious Celebration

The founding of Australia is still worthy of commemoration.

· 10 min read

On 26 January 1988, on the bicentenary of Australia’s foundation, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke organised a re-enactment of the First Fleet landing, and promoted the date with a government-run advertising campaign called “Celebration of a Nation.” The campaign fostered an image of Australia as a country confident in its heritage. But Australia Day has always been more contested than Hawke’s campaign would suggest.  

Captain Cook made landfall on the Australian continent on 19 April 1770. On 18–20 January 1788, the First Fleet, a series of British prison ships led by Captain Arthur Phillip, sailed into Botany Bay on the coast of New South Wales (now part of the greater metropolitan area of the city of Sydney). Finding the site unsuitable for a settlement, they travelled on around the coast and, on 26 January, came ashore at Sydney Cove, where Captain Phillip hoisted the Union Jack and claimed the land for Great Britain. Many of the transported convicts who sailed in the First Fleet were later emancipated and became settlers. But Australia, then known as New Holland, was already inhabited by numerous Aboriginal tribes. These natives saw the settlers as intruders.

There are two popular ways to commemorate 26 January: as either celebration or condemnation. Those who celebrate throw parties, fill the Esky with beer, and get out the barbecue, along with other activities associated with the nation’s food and culture. Immigrants are welcomed in formal citizenship ceremonies, while awards such as the Order of Australia and Australian of the Year are given out to honour people for their contributions to the country.

Those who condemn the celebration have rebranded the date as Invasion Day or the National Day of Mourning. They promote their views through social media campaigns with slogans such as “Always Was, Always Will Be Aboriginal Land,” “Pay the Rent,” and “Abolish Australia.” They contend that the date should be changed, in order to promote a more inclusive country and address injustices against Indigenous Australians.

Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

These disputes are not new. But as the debate continues, the country’s political and cultural establishment—from media entities to local councils—has slowly adopted the view that the day should not be celebrated. Polls show a similar, though less extreme, shift in the attitudes of the broader population. For example, in 2004, a Newspoll survey found that 79 percent of people were happy with Australia Day being held on 26 January, whereas more recent polls have consistently revealed a closer divide between those who would keep and those who would change the date.

But the progressive idealism that motivates those who are against the celebration of Australia Day often encourages them to gloss over how complicated the foundation of Australia was and why it might still be worthy of celebration.

Following Captain James Cook’s initial expedition to what was then called New Holland in 1770, Britain’s home secretary Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney, decided to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay—in effect, founding Australia. One of the first landing sites was named Sydney Cove in his honour. The establishment of Australia came at a crucial time: the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, followed by American independence from Britain, meant that the British Empire was no longer able to transport convicts to North America. (The last boatload of British convicts was offloaded in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, in April 1776.)

At first, 26 January wasn’t considered the official day of European arrival in Australia. The Colony of New South Wales, where Sydney Cove and Botany Bay are located, was not formally established until 7 February 1788, under the aegis of King George III, with Arthur Phillip as its first governor. On 26 January 1808, Lieutenant-Governor George Johnston and John Macarthur deposed the deeply unpopular New South Wales governor William Bligh (the same infamous Captain Bligh of the Mutiny on the Bounty) in a coup d’état known as the Rum Rebellion, marking the date out for celebration. According to historian Elizabeth Kwan, by the early nineteenth century, some of the official New South Wales almanacs marked the anniversary of what was then known as “First Landing Day” or “Foundation Day.”

The First Fleet arrives in Botany Bay, 21 January 1788, by William Bradley (1802).

On 26 January 1818, on the 30th anniversary of the establishment of New South Wales, Governor Lachlan Macquarie declared Foundation Day a state holiday. Specific activities gradually became linked to the day, such as the annual regatta, first held at Sydney Harbour in 1838. By 1888, all the colonial capitals were celebrating 26 January as “Anniversary Day.” Finally, in 1946, all the state governments and the Commonwealth agreed to observe the date as Australia Day.

But right from the outset, not everybody wanted to mark the occasion. In 1888, when asked whether he was planning to organise festivities for Aboriginal Australians, then Premier of New South Wales Sir Henry Parkes allegedly answered, “And remind them that we have robbed them?”

Captain Cook and the Colonial Paradox
Sydney. London. Toronto.

The year 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of the British arrival in Australia and was widely celebrated across the country. Unlike Parkes, the organizers of the day invited Indigenous rights advocates and leaders such as William Cooper, the founder of the Australian Aborigines League, and Jack Patten of the Aborigines Progressive Association to attend the festivities. In that same year, Patten, Cooper, and Aboriginal leader William Ferguson organised a Day of Mourning in New South Wales and Victoria, in protest at the “Whiteman’s seizure of our country” and the continued disenfranchisement and oppression of Indigenous Australians.

Every year since 1938, Invasion Day rallies have attracted thousands of attendees, who have gathered to highlight the disadvantages facing Aboriginal Australians, including their disproportionate share of Australia’s prison population and their lower than average life expectancies and literacy rates.

On 26 January 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established outside the Old Parliament House in Canberra. These protestors presented similar demands to those of 1938. They wanted the enactment of a treaty between the Aborigines and the descendants of the First Fleet and the preservation of Native Title, which derives from traditional Indigenous laws and customs. During the 1988 bicentenary, an estimated 2.5 million people gathered in Sydney to celebrate Australia Day, in what the Sydney Morning Herald called “by far the biggest crowd to attend a single Australian event.” Some 40,000 people also marched through Sydney to protest the event. (For comparison, Australia’s largest anti-Vietnam War protest, held in Melbourne in May 1970, attracted around 70,000 people.) In 1988, Aborigines rallied around land rights flags and called for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Today, few Indigenous Australians celebrate Australia Day, and their concerns about the date are being taken more seriously. Some mainstream institutions have rescheduled events that were once associated with Australia Day. The Victorian government quietly cancelled the 2023 Australia Day parade in Melbourne, an event that the co-chair of the First Nations Assembly, Marcus Stewart, described as a “slap in the face.” Triple J, a government-funded Australian radio station, which used to broadcast its “Hottest 100” (the 100 most popular songs in Australia, decided by audience vote) on Australia Day changed the date of the programme following audience backlash and protests from Indigenous rappers. Some politicians complained about the decision, however, and rival radio station Triple M broadcast a similar countdown on 26 January, consisting exclusively of Australian songs. (This was also contentious.)

Several city councils, including those of Fremantle, Yarra, and Darebin, chose not to host citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day. In retaliation, Malcolm Turnbull’s government stripped them of their citizenship-granting powers—a decision that was reversed by Anthony Albanese’s government in December 2022. In 2023, some corporations and universities offered staff the option of working on Australia Day, as an act of protest, while the Australian public television network Channel 10 sent an email to all its staff, stating that 26 January is “not a day of celebration for First Nations people.” This year, Woolworths, one of Australia’s largest retailers, have announced that they will not stock Australia Day merchandise, such as hats, temporary tattoos, and plastic flags. Pat Cummins, captain of the Australian cricket team, supports changing the date of Australia Day. Cricket Australia initially announced that they would not mention Australia Day during the announcements at a Test match in Brisbane scheduled for 26 January, but CEO Nick Hockley has since announced that they will do so, following a backlash from the press.

Some anti-Australia Day activists hold what historian Geoffrey Blainey refers to as a “black armband” view, according to which Australia has been a fundamentally flawed nation since its foundation in 1788. Such activists trace many systemic issues to the arrival of the First Fleet.

Some of their contentions are true, and others are at least understandable. Australia’s colonial history is complicated, and some aspects of it continue to be disputed by historians—a debate that influences political policies that affect Indigenous Australians. The original settlers clearly had an unfair advantage over the Aborigines they encountered. During the Frontier Wars, Indigenous groups weren’t capable of sustained resistance, partially because they were unable to form confederations. The conflict was lopsided: Aborigines fought with hunting spears, while colonists used firearms. The settlers also brought smallpox, which devastated the Aboriginal population, who had had no previous exposure and therefore had developed no natural immunity to the disease.

The First Fleet encountered Indigenous Australians upon arrival. Captain Phillip hoped to establish friendly relations with the natives; indeed, this was British government policy. But conflicts soon broke out between the two sides, even though Phillip tried to mitigate them by forbidding settlers from retaliating against Aboriginal attacks. In his journal for July 1791, Phillip recorded that 27 ex-convicts were armed with muskets with which they shot 50 Aborigines; in retaliation, their huts were burned down. Numerous further massacres and poisonings occurred throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting in the deaths of at least 100,000 Indigenous Australians. The grief and devastation that such actions caused among Indigenous Australians must be taken seriously.

Critics of Australia Day have proposed a number of alternative dates, associated with significant historical events and national symbols. They include the following.

●     1 January (also known as Federation Day) acknowledges the formal unity of the states and territories that make up the Federation of Australia. Since it falls on New Year’s Day, the date is already a public holiday.
●     25 April (also known as ANZAC Day) commemorates the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who died in Gallipoli during World War I.
●     8 May, a wild card candidate, has been proposed because “May eight” sounds like the word “mate.”
●     26 May (also known as National Sorry Day) commemorates the Stolen Generations, the name given to Aboriginal children who were removed from their families by government agencies.
●     27 May commemorates the 1967 referendum that granted Indigenous Australians the right to vote and inclusion in the national census.
●     30 July. At least one article claims that this was the first Australia Day, in 1915, celebrated as part of a fundraiser for soldiers fighting in World War I.
●     1 September (also known as National Wattle Day), which celebrates wattle as the national flower.

But while these celebrations all have merit, they cannot match the larger significance of 26 January and the 1788 landing that transformed Australia, changing the lives of all its citizens, past and present.

Australia has a long way to go in reducing the poverty and inequalities facing our Indigenous peoples, but changing the date of a national holiday will not solve these issues. It will be, at best, merely symbolic.

The events of 26 January 1986 endowed Australia Day with an added significance, as it was the date on which the Australia Act came into effect. The act, which was passed by both Australian and British parliaments, granted Australia full sovereignty, allowing the country to pass laws without having to consult British legal precedent. The date now represents two important aspects of our country’s malleable national identity: our ties with the Commonwealth and our growth into the most advanced country in the southern hemisphere, enjoying a calmer, more centrist politics than any other country in the Anglophone sphere.

Australia has evolved from a colony of European settlements into one of the world’s biggest multiracial melting pots. In 1901, the Australian Federation established the White Australia policy, with the support of trade protectionists and unions, to restrict Asian immigration. But this legislation was dismantled in 1973. According to a January 2020 survey, most immigrants and refugees are supportive of Australia Day. Like the convicts who came over with the First Fleet, they were ultimately able to make new lives for themselves in Australia, which they view as worth celebrating.

As of this writing, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has no plans to change the date of Australia Day, but has acknowledged that the human occupation of Australia began “60,000 years ago” with the arrival of the first Indigenous people. Australia Day should not be an uncritical celebration: we should acknowledge more than one perspective on the landing of the First Fleet.

On 26 January 1988, Bob Hawke addressed a citizenship ceremony in Canberra. He emphasized that “the commitment to Australia is the one thing needful to be a true Australian” because “in Australia, there’s no hierarchy of descents, and there must be no privilege of origin.” Australia Day, in Hawke’s view, commemorates the country’s past, present, and future as a liberal democracy committed to fairness and equality, and provides a day on which Australians can feel unified by pride in their country.

The most important thing is that everyone should be allowed the freedom to express their views of Australia and particularly of its difficult history. We should acknowledge the atrocities that took place in the past, but also understand that Australia remains a weird and wonderful place, a hostile and yet hospitable land. And there’s nothing shameful about that.

Erratum Notice: The original version of this article erroneously stated that Captain Cook was the first European to make landfall on the Australian continent. In fact, there had been previous reported landings, including by the Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon in 1606 and the English explorer William Dampier in 1688. The error was mine.—Editor, Iona Italia

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