In recent years, calls for Australia Day to be changed from January 26 have intensified. Should an alternate date for Australia Day be chosen?
January 26, the date of Australia Day, Australia’s national holiday is fast approaching, and along with it the annual controversy surrounding the date. In recent years, pushback on the January 26 date – the date when British colonists first settled in Botany Bay, Sydney – has increased. Demonstrations protesting the date are now commonplace during Australia Day, particularly in major capital cities. The controversy surrounding this date relates to the subsequent campaigns of violence against the Indigenous Australian population as colonies were settled and established. Australia Day has long been a deeply contentious day for Indigenous Australians, many of whom refer to the day as ‘Invasion Day’, and hold demonstrations against the holiday. While calls for Australia Day to move from January 26 have long been present, the last year, in particular, has seen the campaign for a date change gather momentum, for a few different reasons.
The recent push for a date change
The controversy has become more pronounced this year than in previous years. There are a few reasons why this is the case. Firstly, there is an increased political enthusiasm for changing the date of Australia, at least at local levels of government. Several local councils in the last year have made the decision to no longer recognise Australia Day on January 26. These councils have mostly been in the inner suburbs of cities such as Melbourne and Fremantle. This has been met with stern opposition from the Coalition, who stripped Melbourne’s Yarra council of the ability to hold citizenship ceremonies in response to this move. Recently, the federal Greens party also indicated their support for changing the date of Australia Day.
The push to change the date of Australia Day gained further attention last night when iconic youth radio broadcaster Triple J elected to move its flagship Hottest 100 countdown from Australia Day to the following day on the 27th January. The decision was made after a survey of over 60,000 listeners indicated that 60% of respondents wanted Triple J to move the countdown away from January 26. In a post on the Triple J website, it was stated,“There were a lot of different perspectives about 26 January, and different ways to approach Australia Day. But when it came to the Hottest 100, it was clear most people want the Hottest 100 to be on its own day when everyone can celebrate together”. While the Hottest 100 countdown has become synonymous with Australia Day in recent years, it did not start out on January 26. Initially, the countdown, which started in 1991, was held on the 5th March, with the Australia Day date being adopted in 1998.
It is worth taking into account that Australia’s national holiday has not always been held on the 26th January. This date has only been when Australia Day has been held nationally since 1994. Prior to then, different dates were celebrated in various Australian states and territories. Advocates for changing the date cite this as a reason for changing the date. The first instance of a national day of celebration dates back to the 1940s when January 26 was adopted as the national day of celebration. However, the National Australia Day Committee, which oversees the day, did not receive federal funding and recognition until 1984.
In spite of all this, a majority of Australians believe that Australia Day should remain on January 26. An Essential poll on the issue found that 70% of Australians believed everyone could celebrate Australia Day on January 26, compared to 18% who disagreed. 54% of respondents were opposed to the day changing from January 26. Indigenous Australians were much more divided on the issue, by contrast. 31% of Indigenous Australians had negative feelings about the day, while 30% had mixed feelings. 23% had positive feelings toward Australia Day. These statistics are a sign that despite increased public awareness of campaigns to change the date of Australia Day, there is still a considerable way to go before any move from the current January 26 date is realised.
Changing the date – complicating factors
The argument for changing or keeping the date is by no means a simple manner to consider, despite what partisans on either side of the argument will insist. There are respectable arguments on either side, worthy of sincere consideration. It is undeniable that January 26 is a conflicting time for Australia’s Indigenous population. There are myriad complicating factors behind having the date on the 26th January, to be sure. It is perfectly legitimate that many Indigenous Australians mark the date as a time to reflect on past injustices toward their people. It is, however, important not to discount the Indigenous voices and perspectives who wish to keep Australia Day on January 26. To assume that all Indigenous Australians want a change of the date would be to neglect the complexity of the issue among Indigenous Australians.
Noongar elder Dr Robert Isaacs, for instance, argues that January 26 should be kept for the time being, despite the conflicting nature of the date. For Dr Isaacs, Australia Day is an important day for Australians of all backgrounds to ‘come together and move forward’. He is open to a referendum on the issue for all perspectives to be heard, despite his own personal preference for moving the date from January 26 in the future. Indigenous Alice Springs councillor, Jacinta Price, has also called for Australia Day to remain on January 26. She labelled calls to change the day as ‘kneejerk’ and idiotic, believing there are more pressing issues for Indigenous Australia to be concerned with. On the issue of changing the date, Price stated, “We’ve got to stop painting each other with the same brush … not all white people are racists and not all Aboriginal people are feeling like they are victims of our country’s history.”
Prominent Indigenous elder Warren Mundine, while ultimately wanting a change of the date unlike Ms Price, also argues that there are more pressing issues for Indigenous Australians. “If you want to make us feel good, then let’s start dealing with the unemployment, the health and the education of Aboriginal people rather than dealing with this issue”, Mundine said in a recent interview on Sydney radio station 2GB. Mundine has also voiced concern about the polarisation of the debate and the recent degeneration of public debate on the issue, including threats, insults and vitriol from both progressives and conservatives. He noted the fact that even Indigenous figures who wanted a change of the date, such as himself and Dr Isaacs, were being attacked was ‘bizarre’ and an example of coarsening debate on the issue.
Although many Indigenous Australians, 54%, wish for a change to the date, many others are still unsure or wish for the current date to remain as Australia Day. For many Indigenous Australians, while the day is undoubtedly a complicated one with conflicting emotions, it is still a day of celebration as well as reflection. This complexity, which reflects the complexity of Australia’s history, would largely remain regardless of the date picked. There is also the issue of choosing which alternative day to hold Australia Day on. January 1 is a possibility, being the day of Australia’s federation as a nation. While this date is viable, it is also worth noting that on January 1, 1901, Indigenous Australians were not at the time regarded as Australian citizens in the same sense non-Indigenous Australians were. Using the same logic that opposes January 26, the 1st January is also problematic. Up until now, campaigners for changing the date have not been able to settle on a date to move Australia Day to from January 26. The aforementioned suggestion for January 1st has been mooted, as has May 8 and several other days. Until a date can be decided on and a case made for moving it to that specific day, any movement for changing the date is unlikely to go far.
“For many Indigenous Australians, while the day is undoubtedly a complicated one with conflicting emotions, it is still a day of celebration as well as reflection”
While Australia Day is a complex day, it is still primarily viewed as a day for celebrating Australia as a nation, its achievements, culture and society for the majority of Australians, including many Indigenous Australians. The issues facing Indigenous Australians are similarly complex, requiring clear attention and action beyond symbolic gestures such as changing the date Australia Day is celebrated away from January 26. Having said that, the issue of moving Australia Day from January 26 is one which is not going to go away. As Dr Isaacs, the Noongar elder has suggested, a referendum or plebiscite on the issue may be the best way to solve the current impasse. Allowing a democratic solution to a growing cultural issue within Australia, similar to the marriage equality vote last year is perhaps the fairest and most equitable way to ensure all perspectives are considered.
Scott Davies is a freelance writer from Adelaide, Australia, with an interest in politics, history and culture. He holds a BA (Honours) in History and is currently studying a Master of Teaching (Secondary).