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Australia Day: What it is and what it isn't

Dane Finlay, January 29th, 2022.

Edited on April 2nd, 2022

Three days ago was January 26th, 2022. On that day the national holiday of Australia was observed. Australia Day is a holiday for Australians to celebrate their country, culture and history. Or at least that is what it should be. Unfortunately, it has become, in recent years, absurdly controversial. For this year's Australia Day, I wrote about the history of the holiday and why the controversy surrounding it is ill-founded and divisive. It is hoped that this essay will be informative on a matter important to the Australian public. It is sure to be just as valid next year when, no doubt, the same "debate" will once again take place, probably in a sharper form.

Like many national days, ours marks the birth of a nation: the landing of the First Fleet in Port Jackson in 1788 followed shortly thereafter by the proclamation of British sovereignty. The tradition of annual celebrations on January 26th dates back to the early nineteenth century. Emancipated convicts were, as early as 1808, marking the beginnings of the then British colony of New South Wales with festivals.1 It became an official holiday in that colony2 in 1818 by decree of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The holiday was first known as Foundation Day, then Anniversary Day, ANA Day and finally Australia Day. Being a tradition of the eastern part of Australia, it was not adopted across the country until 1910, although it was not at that point called Australia Day. South Australia was the last to adopt it. The rest, as they say, is history. Australians in general have celebrated their country on this day for over one hundred years and, in the eastern part, over two hundred.

There are, it is true, ugly streaks to the tapestry of the Australian story. But then, which nation in history is perfect? Ours has a history not unlike that of the Americas. But this has long been generally acknowledged. (Do we not begin meetings of every kind in this country with such acknowledgements?) Why, then, must old wounds be opened up again and again? Certainly they should not be ignored, but things are hardly as bad as they used to be. No one alive today is responsible for the early enslavement and segregation of indigenous people. It is precisely for the same reason convict transportation went out of fashion in the nineteenth century that this form of slavery did in the twentieth: it became untenable, thanks in part to those "Whites" here and elsewhere who opposed it.

The central thesis of the Change the Date movement is that to change the date of the national holiday would be symbolically significant to the indigenous. But, quite aside from the fact that there are indigenous Australians who celebrate on the 26th3, it was, again, originally a tradition of the eastern part of Australia. The colonial government in South Australia only commenced in December of 1836, almost fifty years after the landing of the First Fleet in Port Jackson. The history is similar in Western Australia, with its first settlement, founded in 1827, eventually developing into today's port city of Albany.4 Western Australia, in fact, was never even part of the colony of New South Wales and South Australia was established as a convict-free British province. Naturally, being so far away, (for Australia is a continent,) January 26th would not have had as much significance in these parts of the country. Were horrific acts committed against the indigenous in these parts? Absolutely. There were a great many massacres and other atrocities.5 But, again, the date was not so symbolically significant across all of Australia during a time when indigenous people were treated abysmally, i.e. the nineteenth century. A change in the date could not, therefore, be significant for all victims of the frontier wars6 and their descendants. In a word, it would not be, even by the flawed logic of these activists, inclusive.

Also implied in this thesis, (and at times explicitly stated,) is that the settlements in Australia were founded on racism. But this is not true. Governor Arthur Phillip was given clear instructions by George III on this matter on April 25th, 1787. He (the Governor) was to "open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them."7 This seems to be just what the Governor initially tried to do.8 One of the founding documents of the British province of South Australia, the Letters Patent of February 19th, 1836, provided that "nothing in those our Letters Patent contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own Persons or in the Persons of their Descendants of any Lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives."9 The language of these documents was not racist and would not, with some modernisation, be out of place today. This mode of intercourse with the indigenous was obviously not always used or preferred, but it does mean the country was not founded on racism.

The Change the Date activist might respond to this by saying that colonialism was wrong. But the reality is that it happened. The real world is a messy place. It is rather naive to think that the British, having just lost the American colonies at the time, would not have colonised Australia if they thought they could manage it. And if not the British, it might well have been the French or the Dutch, who were in the area.10 Colonisation of this country was, with the state of indigenous society being what it was at the time, inevitable. This is, dare it be said, quite aside from the societal improvements the process eventually affected.

We should take a moment here to recall the humble beginnings of the holiday. It was not, as one might be led believe, foisted from the start on the indigenous people by the British out of malice. Rather, it was, as mentioned above, first celebrated by former convicts in a land in which they had become free men. How many holidays are there founded upon the notions of freedom and independence? A great many!11 What is this if not another?

So, with these things in mind, how exactly would changing the national holiday, which was, perhaps, a logical step after federation in 1901, constitute a positive symbolic change for all? It would not. This movement, in light of the above truths, is exposed for what it really is: a rabid and uneducated attack on an old, harmless tradition. Its only achievement has been to set Australians against one another. I have never quite liked the term "un-Australian," but the effect of changing the date would be just that; it would rob Australians of a part of their national identity — their patriotism, something common to all nations — and put in its place a wretched atmosphere of guilt for crimes not committed. And this vocal minority, by which I mean those professional Change the Date activists, wonder why they are unpopular! The ill-founded "symbolism" these miserable miscreants would impose on the rest of us every January is seen, quite rightly by many Australians, as unjust.

So I say Australians wanting celebrate on January 26th should do so unashamedly. Our country may have started out as a handful of British territories, but it has become much more. This is a highly developed country with democratic traditions. Australians should have as much a right to patriotic feelings as any other nationality. We are, in a sense, no longer "young" and, with this and other trends in the country gathering strength in recent years, I daresay we are no longer "free" either. We really must rise above all this.


1 See "Celebrating Australia: A History of Australia Day essay" by E. Kwan (2008): https://web.archive.org/web/20100104092841/http://www.australiaday.org.au/experience/page76.asp.

2 At that time the colony of New South Wales comprised the present Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria, the two territories presently internal to New South Wales and what is now the country of New Zealand.

3 See "NT Aboriginal leader defends January 26 Australia Day" by M. Gorey, The Canberra Times (January 26th, 2017): https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6037147/nt-aboriginal-leader-defends-january-26-australia-day/.

4 Although the territory was formally claimed in 1791, the British government established a settlement at this time only because they were worried about French ships they had seen surveying the West Coast.

5 There is a long list of these on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_of_Indigenous_Australians.

6 A term applied by some historians to the violent conflicts between indigenous Australians and European colonists.

7 A transcript of the King's instructions is available online: https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/item-did-35.html.

8 See "On this day: Arthur Phillip was born" by L. Berney, Australian Geographic (October 10, 2014): https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/blogs/on-this-day/2014/10/on-this-day-arthur-phillip-born/. According to Berney, the Governor, even after having been speared in the shoulder by an Aborigine, ordered his men not to retaliate.

9 A transcript of this Letters Patent is available online: https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/item-sdid-38.html.

10 The French and Dutch colonised New Caledonia and the Dutch East Indies respectively. The latter is now the country of Indonesia.

11 See the Wikipedia list of national days for a selection: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_day.