January 26 is a defining date in our history, yet one that deeply divides our nation. The aspiration of our national day is to celebrate our shared values and freedoms. However, as more and more Australians embrace opportunities to learn about our First Nations cultures, so too are their perspectives on whether it is appropriate to celebrate this on the anniversary of Australia’s invasion.
As the debate has evolved, most Australians understand there is no real tradition surrounding January 26 as Anniversary/Australia Day has been celebrated on several dates. What has been consistent, is that for the past 83 years (since the 1938 Day of Mourning in Sydney) First Nations people have collectively expressed grief and advocated for truth telling and justice.
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Most Australians are aware that a fleet of eleven (not twelve) vessels arrived on our shores in 1788. What is not widely know is that when Lieutenant James Cook had arrived some 18 years earlier, he came with ‘Secret Instructions’. In addition to his research voyage, Lt James Cook’s directive was to “with the Consent of the Natives, to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.”
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With these directives, Cook was authorised to place any indigenous inhabitants of the Great South Land under the rule of the King of England.
Had Lt Cook complied and sought the Consent of the Natives, with a treaty in 1770 our national position would now look vastly different. The current reality is that sovereignty has never been ceded and the concept of Treaty continues to elude our nation’s leaders.
Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised, but failed to deliver. During a 2017 Q&A session at Woodford Folk Festival, I recall that Prime Minister Hawke was asked about his greatest regret. His answer was failing to deliver a Treaty and he lamented the absence of political leadership in current times. What would he think about the public value of changing a single word in the anthem?
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Social justice aside, as a nation why do we continue to celebrate January 26? In its current form, it doesn’t represent who we are or the best of what we, as a diverse nation, have to offer.
Australia Day is a mere construct, and not an inclusive one at that. University of Sydney research conducted by Nicholas Bromfield and Alexander Page analysed the language and content of the Prime Ministerial Australia Day speeches for the last thirty years. Their research found that “ … Prime Ministers have consistently described Australianness as being male, heterosexual, white …”.
This male, stale and pale conception overlooks the amazing innovations and contributions of women, First Nations communities, people of colour, LGBTQI+ communities, people with disability, as well as the 7.5 million migrants living in Australia.
As global citizens, why do we continue to celebrate January 26? I’m hard pressed to find another Commonwealth country, or any country for that fact, that celebrates the invasion of its shores. How would we feel if Germany took a similar approach toward its own Nazi history?
When accounting for our own history and human rights, we hold ourselves to a different standard. Like Germany, Australia has similarly massacred its own citizens, having almost wiped out some indigenous populations.
An Australian map of massacre sites is confronting, particularly when considering many massacres were undocumented. The Australian War Museum collection includes a description of the Waterloo Creek massacre of the NSW Gamilaroi nations on 26 January 1838. While there are plans to recognise the site with a plaque, some Gamilaroi people liken the compounded grief of Australia Day to what settlers’ experience on Anzac Day.
The anniversary of January 26 is synonymous with genocide. What date is appropriate to celebrate this?
The 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia Report found growing community support for reconciliation. Seventy nine per cent of Australians agree that the cultures of First Nations are important to our national identity. Eighty nine per cent of non-Indigenous Australians support formal truth-telling of our history. This is evidenced by the growing divide on January 26.
In 2020, we saw hundreds of thousands of Australians participate in the Dawn Services, Invasion Day marches and Survival Day celebrations in cities across Australia. Aussies are awakening to our testimonies of ongoing discrimination.
There is growing awareness that our Australian Constitution requires reform as it discriminates against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens. Upon the basis of our race, parliament has special powers to legislate for our affairs. In this context, the new anthem wording is lip service, fostering a spirit of unity, while not delivering meaningful equality.
The Uluru Statement From The Heart presents a road map for truth and justice via a Treaty and a Voice to Parliament. It isn’t perfect, but the most comprehensive suggestion to date that honours our past and a provides effective vehicle for a united future.
In the meantime, the insistence of celebrating January 26 will remain a wedge in our identity. Until First Nations people are equally recognised in the Australian Constitution, there is simply no appropriate date to celebrate.
Muriel Bin Dol is a Zenadth Zes (Torres Strait Islander) woman living in Gurambilbara (Townsville).