Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously described Australia Day as a chance for Australians from “all walks of life, from all backgrounds” to join together to celebrate how far the country has come.
He said it was important to be honest about Australia’s past “failings” while also still being able to recognise its achievements.
While the idea of every Australian joining together on January 26 to celebrate might be Mr Morrison’s goal, it is not the reality and experts say it is not one that is likely to ever be achieved.
January 26, 1788, was the day the First Fleet of British convict ships arrived at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson and founded the colony of NSW.
For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the anniversary of this day is not one to celebrate as it marks the start of the dispossession and marginalisation of Indigenous Australians.
Reconciliation Australia, the national body focused on reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, said many Aboriginal people wish to celebrate Australian values and freedoms but feel they can’t do that on January 26.
“The historical events of January 26 mean that many Australians – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – perceive it as date that marks the commencement of a long history of violence and trauma,” the organisation explains.
This is the basis of the argument for changing the date of Australia Day to one all Australians can celebrate.
NATIONAL DEBATE RAMPING UP
The debate around changing the date has ramped up significantly in recent years, to the point where it has become a national talking point in the lead-up to January 26 every year.
Professor of History at ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences Frank Bongiorno said while celebrating the day has always been contested, having an ongoing national debate on the subject is a relatively recent occurrence.
“The idea of it being controversial has certainly been around for a while but the co-ordinated sense of a national debate in the days leading up to Australia Day has probably been occurring for less than a decade,” he told news.com.au.
Professor Bongiorno said it is highly unlikely that Australia Day will ever be celebrated on January 26 without this kind of contention.
“Debates do shift but I think we are probably at a point where the sense of it being a day over which arguments will arise will always be there to some degree,” he said.
“There is no real prospect of that going away.
“I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. You could make the case that the democracy to have a debate like this is a good thing.”
Surveys conducted in recent years suggest the majority of Australians still want to celebrate on January 26, but they also show that sentiment is slowly shifting.
This can partly be attributed to younger generations beginning to understand the history behind the date and why it is a day of mourning for the Aboriginal community.
“The younger generations tend to be less supportive of keeping it on the current day. There is a growing awareness that it is a day that many Indigenous people find difficult or even offensive,” Professor Bongiorno said.
“More people are now beginning to understand it is a difficult day. That is where this increasing sense of controversy and contention comes from, because there is a growing awareness around the implications of the date.”
A SHIFT IN ATTITUDES
A poll conducted by Essential Media show there is growing support for a separate national day to be created to recognise Indigenous Australians.
In this year’s poll, more than half of the 1084 respondents said they support a separate day of recognition, with 35 per cent supporting a separate day while also keeping Australia Day and 18 per cent wanting a separate day to replace Australia Day.
Of the other respondents, 35 per cent said they don’t support the creation of a separate day, down from 40 per cent in 2020.
People aged between 18-34 are most likely to support a separate national day, either in place or alongside Australia Day, with 67 per cent agreeing with the idea.
People aged 55 and over were more likely to be against the idea.
Research conducted by the Social Research Centre in 2019 also demonstrates how attitudes towards changing the date differ when it comes to younger and older generations.
The organisation asked a sample of more than 2100 people: “To what extent do you agree or disagree that January 26 is the best day for our national day of celebration?”
More than half of Gen Z respondents disagreed that January 26 was the best date to celebrate Australia Day and 42 per cent of Millennials also thought the day should be celebrated on a different date.
Significantly less people in Gen X had an issue with the January 26 date, with just 27 per cent disagreeing with it.
The vast majority of people in the older generations thought the current date was acceptable, with just 20 per cent of Baby Boomers and 10 per cent of the Silent Generation (born between 1928-1945) disagreeing with the date.
Even though sentiment around Australia Day is definitely shifting, Professor Bongiorno said it is unlikely the significance around the January 26 date will ever be completely scrapped.
“I think it is likely to remain as a public holiday. It is kind of a boundary marker between the summer holidays, children going back to school and people going back to work,” he said.
Professor Bongiorno said because the date has some of the features of a seasonal celebration it makes many Australians less likely to reflect on the historical significance of the day as they just perceive it as a public holiday.
“I think the day will continue being recognised in some sort of way,” he said.