Australia’s Violent Past Confronts Its National Holiday

Australia Day, which is celebrated on Jan. 26, is a controversial date, particularly for many indigenous people who view it as a marker for colonialism.

Australia is gearing up to celebrate its national holiday this week amid growing calls for the date of the celebration to be changed out of respect for the country’s Aboriginal people.

The country celebrates its national holiday ― Australia Day ― on Jan. 26, the anniversary of the day in 1788 when British settlers arrived in Sydney to establish a prison colony. The date is commonly recognized as the birth of modern Australia, but it also marks the beginning of more than a century of trauma for the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, who were dispossessed of their lands, murdered by settlers and decimated by European diseases. Even today, people of indigenous heritage are subject to social, health and employment outcomes far below those of the wider Australian population.

Calls to change the date of Australia Day have existed for years, with organized protests existing since at least 1938. But a recent groundswell of support from the entertainment industry and a growing base of political support have amplified the calls for changing the date.

“Australia Day will always be known as a day of mourning for our community,” said Nathan Moran, CEO of Sydney’s Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, and a man of Thungutti and Biripai Goori heritage.

Australia Day has only been held as a nationally-recognized and consistent public holiday on Jan. 26 since 1994, but individual states have held their own formal or informal celebrations since soon after the 1788 landing.

Critics say this short history as a national holiday means it can and should be changed to a more inclusive date that all Australians, including the nation’s first people, can celebrate.

But even before its designation as a national holiday, the date was controversial. The first ‘day of mourning’ march was held in Sydney in 1938 to mark 150 years since the British arrival, with posters at the time saying the protest was against “the whitemen’s seizure of our country” and “the callous treatment of our people.” And in past years, as other Australians hold barbecues, go to the beach, or host a party, thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous people have upheld the tradition to participate in ‘Day Of Mourning’ protest marches in major cities nationwide.

“Lots of people have spoken to the sadness and inappropriateness of the 26th for a long time. It’s not something that’s come up recently,” said Moran.

An elder protester speaks during a demonstration on Australia Day on Jan. 26, 2017.
An elder protester speaks during a demonstration on Australia Day on Jan. 26, 2017.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Calls For Change

Public support for a change of the date has increased in the last several years. A recent poll released by The Australia Institute found that 56 percent of citizens didn’t care which day the holiday is marked, and 49 percent said the holiday should not be on a day that is offensive to indigenous Australians, but only 37 percent thought Jan. 26 was an offensive day for indigenous people.

After deciding not to host Australia Day celebrations last year, several local councils announced plans to move citizenship ceremonies traditionally held on Jan. 26 day to a new date. But the federal government swiftly stepped in and stripped two of those councils of the right to host citizenship ceremonies.

But other segments of Australian society have embraced change.

Richard Di Natale, leader of the Australia Greens party ― the third-largest voting bloc in the Australian parliament ― announced last week that his party would launch a national campaign in support of changing the date of Australia Day.

“We need to acknowledge that there are people who see Jan. 26 as a day that represents pain and suffering, the ongoing effect of which can still be felt today,” he said at a press conference last week.

Members of the entertainment industry have also taken up the fight.

Triple J, Australia’s popular national youth radio station, has for many years run an annual ‘Hottest 100’ countdown on Australia Day of the top 100 songs of the previous year. However, following an online poll of its listeners, the station announced it would hold the countdown on another day this year, saying “it should be an event that everyone can enjoy together.”

The reform was in no small part due to campaigning by A.B. Original, the popular indigenous rap act. The duo are known for their politically-charged songs, which often focus on issues like racism and police brutality. Lyrics from their song “January 26,” which was voted the 16th most popular song in Triple J’s 2016 countdown, compare commemorating the date to celebrating “on your nan’s grave” and having people “piss on her face.”

“I don’t think you can find a more concise analogy. We don’t want to piss on your nan’s grave but that’s what it means to us. It’s a slap in the face,” A.B. Original member Briggs told HuffPost in 2016.

But supporters of Australia Day in its current format ― which include Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, federal opposition leader Bill Shorten and many powerful media figures ― argue that Jan. 26 has been celebrated, formally or informally, in some way since the British settlers first arrived in 1788. They have accused those arguing for change of being motivated by political correctness or a desire to cause political division.

“I’m disappointed by those who want to change the date of Australia Day, seeking to take a day that unites Australia and Australians and turn it into one that would divide us,” Turnbull said in a Facebook video on the topic. “A free country debates its history, it does not deny it. It builds new monuments as it preserves old ones, writes new books not burn old ones.”

But Amanda Kearney, an associate professor in anthropology at the University of New South Wales, told HuffPost that it is wrong to ask Aboriginal people to simply forget the traumas of the past, as some politicians and others have suggested. Kearney, whose work focuses on Australia’s Aboriginal people, specifically studies a concept she calls “cultural wounding,” which looks at how past trauma or violence experienced by people of a certain culture can leave lasting effects that carry on far into the future for members of that culture.

“[British colonization] was an exercise in attempting to erase a rich culture. It’s a huge event in time and space, and it’s a very naïve attitude that this can go away with the passage of time, that the effects dissolve and people move on,” she said.

“The idea of celebrating Australia Day is a clear statement about what’s important to remember. It’s a celebration of an attempt to erase a whole range of diverse cultures, and ways of being.”

Therefore, Kearney argues, changing the date would be a powerful symbol that Australia wants to atone for past injustices against indigenous people.

Moran, from the Metro Local Aboriginal Land Council, agreed. He told HuffPost his heritage traces back to people from the very clans who lived on the land where British settlers first set foot in Sydney. As a result, he has strong opposition to celebrating Australia Day on Jan. 26.

“The emergence of Jan. 26 as some national patriotic day ― it’s quite sickening and appalling for our community. It’s celebrating the invasion of someone’s country. That’s not about celebrating for us,” he said. “It’s never been a day of celebration. It’s forever the day foreign invaders arrived.”

“It’ll always be a day of significance, and we’ll never forget it, don’t you worry. But I don’t think it’s a day of patriotism or celebration,” he added.

Not everyone in the indigenous community shares Moran’s commitment to changing the date. A counter-campaign to preserve the holiday on Jan. 26 counts Aboriginal woman and Alice Springs local councillor Jacinta Price as one of its major spokespersons.

“For Aboriginal people, in order to actually really grow and move forward we need to do a bit of soul-searching within ourselves and not have this expectation that everyone else around us has to change in order to make us feel better about who we are within ourselves,” Price said in an interview on ABC radio last week.

“I don’t see how the date (of Jan. 26) itself denies parts of our history. I think it’s actually significant for our history to recognize that.”

Kearney, the anthropologist, said there appears to be a generational gap among indigenous people when it comes to the date change. Older people, she noted, generally feel it is not a priority issue for Aboriginal people, while many younger people support a change.

Linda Burney, a federal member of parliament and the first indigenous woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, told HuffPost that while she acknowledged Jan. 26 was a “difficult and painful day for many First Australians,” her community had bigger issues to deal with.

“[Jan. 26] marks the usurpation of Aboriginal sovereignty. I’m not sure this ought to be the most defining moment in our nation’s history. I don’t see the date of Australia Day changing any time soon, and I don’t propose changing it,” she said in a statement.

“But I do think that we should use this day as an opportunity to reflect on the pain of the past as well as on how we can improve the lives of First Australians.”

“I think above all else, Aboriginal people are most concerned about the more concrete issues that affect their lives – like, jobs, housing, health care and education.”

A protester holds a banner during a demonstration on Australia Day 2017.
A protester holds a banner during a demonstration on Australia Day 2017.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Moving Foward

Despite the growing support for changing the date of Australia Day, change on a political level seems out of reach for at least the near future.

While altering the date of the national holiday would realistically only require a simple decree and decision from the government, the leading two major parties support keeping the day as it is, positions that are unlikely to change in the near future. And though the Greens announced their support for a shift, the party’s position remains as the distant third party in government.

But even if political change is slow to come, the national conversation about the date has nonetheless pushed into Australian mainstream.

The simple fact that Australia Day sparks a debate each year means that this process will continue into the future.

“You either change the date or you rename it, you repackage it like you were at an ad agency. Both require fairly progressive and provocative moves by government and business and everyday people. Changing the date is probably more likely to happen, it doesn’t require an ideological shift to rename or reshape the day,” Kearney said.

“This is a long running situation. It might be a long time before we reach consensus, or maybe never. But this debate is bringing an opportunity to learn more. This is a nation with a difficult past,” she added.

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