Australian Politics

Have Your Say: Should the Date of Australia Day be Changed?

State speaks to three UWA students with differing opinions about what they think of January 26th and whether we should find a new date to celebrate Australia.

One of the most robust debates in Australia of the last few years centres around whether the date of Australia Day celebrations should be moved from January 26th, the date that marks the landing of the First Fleet in 1788, to a date that doesn’t mark the beginning of European settlement. Those opposed to changing the date say that the 26th of January marks the start of modern Australia, while those that support changing the date say that Australia Day as it stands is insensitive to the suffering of Indigenous Australians as a result of colonisation.

Do you support changing the date of Australia Day from January 26th? Why or why not?

TW: No, I do not support changing the date. I believe that the 26th of January is the most significant date in Australian history that has helped establish our nation (besides the date we became a federation, which coincides with New Year’s Day) and therefore it is something for all of us to celebrate. We wouldn’t have the Australia that we have today if it wasn’t for the arrival of the First Fleet.

SJ: Yes. I believe that we can choose a new day to celebrate all that is good in Australia; one that consciously includes Indigenous people and acknowledges that they have suffered and continue to suffer, while recognising that Australia is also worth celebrating. Changing the date won’t magically remove racism or the plights that many Indigenous people continue face because of their race, but it will be symbolic of a nation that recognises that there are still serious problems in this country that stem from its colonisation by the British. This isn’t about shaming people that aren’t Indigenous or placing blame on modern Australians for past injustices, but is rather about non-Indigenous people having courage and compassion to say that we have a painful history and that history continues to affect people today.

DD: No, because I do not think that the date is important when considering ‘Australia Day’. However, the way Australians come together to celebrate the day is wrong and the way we recognise what the day means must change. Personally, I am not Australian, but I have read enough on both sides of the argument to form an opinion and hope that my opinion as someone with a neutral point of view based on the facts presented to me.

January 26th is a significant date in Australian history – it marks the coming of the Captain Arthur Phillip and the ‘second’ fleet and naturally become the date chosen to celebrate European occupation. This is where it becomes a problem which sadly, many fail to recognise and acknowledge when it comes to celebrating Australia Day. The true natives of Australia have been mistreated in unimaginable ways since the British arrived in January 1788. They have suffered throughout most of Australia’s history, especially during the ‘Stolen Generations’ era between 1905 to 1969. Though efforts have been made in the past decade to acknowledge the hurt caused and to reconcile the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-indigenous Australia, it has not been enough. I think many people see ‘changing the date’ as the first serious attempt to make amends among the indigenous Australians – to truly reflect a movement towards justice for them and also equality among all Australians. However, ‘changing the date’ would mean to invalidate the day of suffering for the indigenous people and to ignore Australia’s colonial past which is an essential point in Australia’s rich and diverse history.

January 26th marks an important point in history for many groups of people. It should be a day of remembrance for the hardship that the colonial masters had caused for the indigenous people. It should be a day of mourning for the indigenous ancestors being wrongfully and unjustly displaced from their home. It shouldn’t be a date for celebration, but it is a date that needs to be kept for the future generation to learn about the land they are on. I agree that it is not a day to celebrate the way Australians do by throwing pool parties and drinking copious amounts of beer. But the date should remain.

So no, I do not support changing the date because it is important to remember history. What I support, is changing the way January 26 is being taught and commemorated in Australia. Changing the date will be problematic, and may make social issues like racism worse.

Do you think the average Australian knows enough about our history (eg. pre-colonial Australia, Indigenous resistance to Europeans, the Stolen Generation etc.) to understand why January 26th is viewed by some as Invasion Day or Survival Day, rather than a day for celebration?

TW: I would imagine that the average Australian would know at least vaguely what happened on January 26, 1788. I also think Australians would be well aware of the oppression of Aboriginal people during the 18th, 19th and early to mid 20th centuries in order to understand why Australia Day has the “Invasion Day” moniker. Australian Aboriginal History and Colonial Australian History are both thoroughly covered in the Australian Curriculum for K-10 students, therefore current primary and secondary school students should also be well-informed about our history.

SJ: No. Speaking from my own experience as someone born in the 1990s, I didn’t learn very much about Indigenous history or the impacts of colonisation until later in high school and at university. I clearly remember learning about colonial history – Captain Cook, the First Fleet, the gold rushes, the Eureka Stockade etc., but there was very little about Indigenous life and leaders both prior to and during/after colonisation. Additionally, in speaking to my mum (born in the 1950s) about this, she agrees that very little was taught about Indigenous people to her generation. I think in particular the lack of knowledge about pre-colonial Indigenous history is one of the areas that most needs improving; most do not understand how advanced Indigenous societies actually were for much of those 60,000+ years prior to European arrival. The fact that people believe Aboriginal people need to ‘get over it’ or ‘stop whinging’ proves that they don’t understand what was here before them.

DD: No, which is a very big problem in the debate. The people that do not know enough about the history of the land they are in are apathetic and sometimes misguided by their own beliefs. I think schools in Australia are not treating history as a discipline seriously and there is a lot of work needed to reform the syllabus in schools to make sure that the average Australian is educated enough to know why this is such an important issue.

Where I am from, we are taught from a very young age about the country’s colonial history and why the government chose to recognise the day of colonisation as a day that marked the development of the country to where it is now. Though the indigenous people were not as badly mistreated as the native Australians, the current government has taken steps to ensure that the hurt and hardship that they were put through were acknowledged and to explain clearly in primary school textbooks why some significant dates are for mourning

So, it is possible to inculcate Australians as young as 6 or 7 about the history of Australia and to explain clearly why January 26 should be understood as a day of mourning and not a celebration as it is today.

Should we instead focus more effort on other methods of reconciliation, such as a formal treaty or constitutional recognition?

TW: Yes. Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations on the 13th of February 2008 was a crucial step in reconciling with our first peoples and bridging the gap between Australian Indigenous people and other Australians. Changing the date to our national day of celebration will not resolve any current Indigenous issues and it will not have the same effects as a treaty or constitutional recognition of our first peoples; changing the date of Australia Day will only cause further division in our community.

SJ: These are also important advances for Australia to make. As I said above, changing the date won’t magically solve the problems we have here, but it will be a symbolic step in the right direction. Effort absolutely needs to be focused in these areas as well; changing the date is not the final or most important step in reconciliation, and I think most if not all people that support changing the date recognise that.

DD: I think it should be written or acknowledged in some form of writing to formerly reconcile non-indigenous and indigenous Australians and to take a first step to seriously making amends, but I don’t think a constitutional recognition is the way to do it. I think the Australian Constitution is unique in a way that it has nothing to do with any sort of identity politics (or at least what I could see as I skim through). It is more of a procedural document which does away with the nationalistic and idealistic nature we see in the American Constitution and has worked very well as it is.

To include a particular race in the Constitution is problematic as it shows that they are preferred over every other race in the country which will be a problem. Constitutionally, all Australians must be treated equally. Instead, it should be legislative in nature. I think it will be less problematic to address issues of inequality in formal treaties.

Do you think that moving Australia Day denies Australian history?

SJ: No, quite the opposite – I think that moving the date from January 26th to a date that all Australians can be proud of is the best way that we can recognise our history. There are several alternative dates with historical significance, showing that we have much to celebrate about the life of this country. Continuing to promote January 26th as the best date to celebrate is ultimately insensitive to our history, as it tends to show a level of contempt for both the historical and modern suffering of Indigenous peoples as a direct result of the landing of the First Fleet.

On another note, the states and territories of Australia have only been united in celebrating January 26th since 1994, so it’s not a date with a particularly strong history of celebration anyway.

Do you think it is fair for January 26th to be viewed as Invasion Day or Survival Day?

TW: Australia had been ‘invaded’ prior to the 26th of January 1788 by the Dutch and British. Therefore, I don’t think it is fair to call Australia Day “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” since it was the day that Australia began to evolve to a developed nation via colonisation, which was inevitable and changed Australia for the better in my opinion. The misinterpretation of Australia Day as ‘Invasion Day’ distracts us from what actually happened on Australia Day and why we celebrate it. The horrendous mistreatment of Australian Aboriginals was ongoing and should not have happened, but no Aboriginal alive today is a direct victim of the oppression that occurred in the 18th century and no white Australian today is responsible for this oppression.

DD: Yes, it would reflect Australia’s history much better than it is now.

Given that Australia Day in its current form has only been consistently marked as a public holiday Australia-wide since 1994, and that the first Australia Day was celebrated on July 30th 1915, is January 26th really that sacred?

TW: Australia Day has been on the 26th of January my whole life, so yes it is sacred to me. Like I mentioned in the first question, the 26th of January is the most significant date in Australian history besides the date we became a federation (1st of January, 1901). If Australia Day was held on January 1, the day would not have as much meaning and significance since this day also marks the new calendar year. I have not heard of any alternative dates offered by those who want to change the date, therefore I still believe that the 26th of January is the best option we have to celebrate our nation.

DD: No, since the question is worded in that sense. I think most people don’t really mind what date it is, but the meaning behind the date is important. You can change the date to whatever date you want, but if you don’t acknowledge the meaning behind the reason to ‘celebrate’ then there is no point in changing at all. We should not ignore that January 26th is an important point in Australian history. Change the date for all to celebrate, but do not ignore the date that marked the suffering and trauma the native Australians faced.

What alternative date/s would you propose?

SJ: There are a variety of dates people have proposed, but I recognise that Australians will almost definitely want our national day to continue to be in the summer (it is a day for beaches, beers and barbecues, after all), making some of the proposed dates “culturally unsuitable”, if you will.

Some possible alternatives are January 1st, to recognise Federation in 1901; February 13th, to mark the apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008; March 3rd, to recognise the day the Australia Acts were passed in 1986; and March 12th, to recognise the day Canberra was given its name on the site of our current Parliament House in 1913.

I support Australia eventually becoming a republic, so for me personally the best alternative date will be to recognise our official independence, but ultimately I don’t mind provided the date is one that all Australians can be proud of.

If Australia becomes a republic, would you support moving Australia Day to observe that day instead?

TW: Possibly. At the moment I think it is best for Australia to remain part of the monarchy, but if Australia does become a republic then that date would be a more significant date in Australian history than January 26. Instead of swapping our national day to the date we become a republic, we could keep the old Australia Day in order to preserve tradition and call the date we become a republic “Independence Day” so we can have two days of celebration!

DD: Yes, because then truly, it will be a day for all Australians to celebrate their independence from the United Kingdom.

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