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Australia Day has never been unifying



Let's be clear. Australia Day, in its various iterations over the life of the commonwealth, has never been unifying. The earliest form on record was an exclusive dinner party in 1817 attended by 40 people at the postmaster's house, marking the anniversary of the New South Wales colony.

Aboriginal protest against Australia DaySubsequent affairs were private and 'official', given that the convicts that comprised most of the population at the time 'were not encouraged to celebrate', and probably were not inclined anyway. Hardly an egalitarian background for a national day.

The minor inaccuracies involved in marking 26 January make it even more patchy: the First Fleet had actually arrived on earlier dates; Britain had formally annexed NSW on a different date; and the country as a whole had already been 'appropriated' by James Cook in August 1770. Other states, having been founded on various dates, regarded it as a Sydney thing until 1935.

In 1938 it was declared an Aboriginal Day of Mourning, and has since been called either Invasion or Survival Day. To press the point, the current momentum against Australia Day is not some newfound 'political correctness', not least because it predates the term.

Resistance was paradoxically welded to this nation at the furnace where it was forged. Australia Day excludes Indigenous peoples past and present, and casually erases the incalculable cost that underwrote this country, which they continue to pay.

There is momentum around facing the truth, with a handful of councils dropping citizenship ceremonies on the day and the ritual Triple J Hottest 100 countdown being moved as well. It is apparent that the issue has become permanently mainstream, and can no longer be minimised as solely an Indigenous agenda or something driven by 'the left'.

A growing number of Australians accept that being proud about something that alienates Indigenous peoples is a jerk thing to do. Most people would rather not be jerks. A recent poll found more than half of the respondents don't mind moving the day, and 70 per cent preferred a date not associated with the First Fleet.


"The date is nothing more than forced compliance with colonial narratives, one that not only disrespects First Peoples but compromises those who have come here for a better life."


Something in this harkens to the Uluru Statement, which called on all Australians to walk with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples toward a better version of themselves. It is but the first step.

It is also a correction to the patriotic fervour that flourished under John Howard. During his time as prime minister, Australia Day became integral to iterating a white Australian-ness, legitimated through British arrival. Elements of the period give this away: rapidly changing demographics, concentration of seaborne asylum seekers, moral panics against Muslims.

In this sense the date is nothing more than forced compliance with colonial narratives, one that not only disrespects First Peoples but compromises those who have come here for a better life.

Former refugees rightly feel the need to be tethered to something. Migrant parents want their kids to fit in and thrive. Many of them participate in Australia Day events because it stands for purchase. It means they are here, living ever after. There is a reason why far-right groups got het up last year over Australia Day billboards that featured smiling Muslim girls.

The incident suggests that the contest over Australia Day extends far beyond the date, and is ultimately about who can belong. This is a fundamentally political question, in the sense that it is those who wield power that are preoccupied with it, and who come from a framework where people belong to nations.

The reality is that nation is what people make it. Rather than belonging to it, we belong to each other, and must be similarly accountable.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Australia Day, asylum seekers, John Howard, Aboriginal Australians



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Existing comments

To call people who want to celebrate Australia Day "jerks" is extremely rude and divisive. But of course divisiveness and intolerance is aloud as long as it from the left. Why cant Australia Day be about the great things this country has achieved. Many aborigines and you your self Fatima are enjoying the fruits of this great country but all we seem to hear is complaints about the sins of the past. Nobody is saying that we should not acknowledge the evils of the past and try to put things right. A better future is not going to come about by people who simply want to criticise and condemn while at the same time enjoying the fruits of the society that has offered them so much. There is a reason your parents came here to live and its probably the same reason my parents came here - its the best country in the world. Yes bad things were done but we must look to the future to make things better for all australians.

ron | 19 January 2018  

Thanks Fatima for nailing the issue in your closing sentences. I often like to quote that poignant scene from One Night The Moon where Paul Kelly singing from a colonial world view insists “ This land is mine....Yeh, I signed on the dotted line. Against this view yet part of the same song, Kev Carmody sings from the voice of First People’s: “This land is me.......This land owns me”. May we learn how to belong to each other and allow this land to “ own” us.

Tony Robertson | 19 January 2018  

Thank you Fatima for pointing out the historical background and reminding us that this is really all about who we are as a people. I was amazed to read that a recent poll revealed that only a minority of people even know why the 26th January was chosen as Australia Day. There is something lacking in the life of this nation; there is nothing that draws us together, that gives us a common understanding of who we are. It seems the entire country was informed about the same-sex-marriage issue, so it is possible to create a national conversation. We urgently need such a conversation, one that does not ignore the problems, and the moral divide, but that finds enough common ground for us to say, "That's us."

Janet | 19 January 2018  

Thanks so much Fatima for articulating so clearly my own reservations about celebrating a day that does not acknowledge the whole truth of our history. It is important to remember that celebrating Australia Day on January 26 it is only a recent phenomenon. I remember celebrating Empire Day on May 24 when I was at school in the 1950's.

Anne Shay | 19 January 2018  

That piece is a credit to you. Be good if the nongs in the big house would take the time to read it.

Warwick Stanley | 19 January 2018  

Thanks Fatima for that unifying history lesson and unifying sentiments. The most gracious Australia Day comments I recall came from an Aboriginal Elder Lady on Bribie Island, many years ago. In her Australia Day ‘Welcome to Country’ address she said that the arrival of the First Fleet, with all the new problems and associated negatives, also heralded the arrival of the English language , a phenomenon that had been unfolding unifying force for good even for Aboriginal people whose long history included divisions exacerbated by language. You suggest that the long history of Aboriginal people was devoid of conflict; the strong didn’t dominate the weak; that everything was rosy until the British came along; and that had the British not come along the idyllic life of the first people would be continuing undisturbed today. Let’s face it the Left can’t tolerate any aspect of Australian history. The Left derives its energy from being contrarian about all things Australian. As someone with Irish convict in the background, I have no particular reason to feel warmth to the First Fleeters, but I hope my loyalty to Australian tradition outweighs any niggardly inclinations just like that admirable gracious Aboriginal lady on Bribie Island.

bb | 19 January 2018  

Aboriginal history is equally full of tribal conflict, killings, kidnapping raids seeking women, abuse of women and children, and unprovoked slaughter of white men. But I suppose that is acceptable if you are not white. Tunnel vision perhaps? Fortunately the present day Aboriginal population, like the white population, got over most of that years ago, despite individuals on both sides being stuck in the past.

john frawley | 19 January 2018  

Not so very long ago I discovered while doing some family history research that there was no such thing as an Australian until 1984 I was considered a British subject. This in spite of being third generation born in this country. Apparently my proudly Irish great-grandfather had been a British citizen because that's how the British decided it should be. I have never thought of myself as anything but Australian with no connection at all to Britain and a very tenuous feeling towards Ireland. Perhaps we should all follow Melbourne and celebrate the Friday before Grand Final. it would be just as relevant for many of us.

Margaret McDonald | 19 January 2018  

Well said Fatima. This article would not have been necessary before Johnny Howard changed Australia Day from a secular holiday into a National Holy Day by insisting that it be observed on 26th January and not on a convenient Monday. Before then, too, Western Australia did not observe Australia Day and many people in Melbourne referred to it as Sydney Day.

Jim | 19 January 2018  

I concur with Ron opening comment, and I am disappointed that the Eureka editor allowed the phrase relating to 'jerks' to remain in the text. We all need to maintain common courtesies if good hard hitting debate is to be revitalised in our society. We do need solid debate and Fatima definitely promotes such debate. In recent years we seem to have lost the ability to debate and have reduced verbal exchanges to slogans. Recent surveys have shown that Australians want to celebrate the Australian story. We all need to rejoice and be thankful. Australia day should be a hallelujah day. It is appropriate to explore options for the date of the day and then such a day should be put to the people. The date of such a day has to be unifying, and that includes the First people as well as those who followed, post 1788 and post WW2. We were a continent with separate self governing colonies, each with their foundation date. We need a date that reflects the whole nation. Perhaps a role for an expanded Australia Day council.

Kevin | 19 January 2018  

Thanks Fatima for your insightful article. I'd like to see the discussion continue until Australia celebrates Australia Day on a date that most of our indigenous brothers and sisters accept.

Grant Allen | 19 January 2018  

Thank you Fatima for your article, but I must also add weight to Ron's comment that to call people "jerks" who want to celebrate Australia Day is not only extremely rude and divisive, but must also include Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an Alice Springs councillor, and most leaders of NT Aboriginal Communities who say they are not insulted by this date; they maintain they are very upset that urban thinking obsesses over it, while doing little, and even obstructing in reaching out to help them in their present troubles of such things like sexual and child abuse intervention etc.

John Whitehead | 19 January 2018  

The fact that "Australia day has never been unifying" is not really about what day it's held because, regardless of what day it's held, Australia as a nation will never be unified until justice for Aboriginal people is taken seriously and Indigenous people can actually have something to celebrate about.

AURELIUS | 19 January 2018  

As Fatima notes, January 26th was usually considered to be a Sydney thing - and John Howard, the official enshriner of Australia Day, is of course a Sydney boy. But why should a day associated with the founding of the penal colony of New South Wales be considered a day of celebration by the rest of the country? Apart from demonstrating astounding public amnesia about the original inhabitants, some states were not founded as penal colonies There must be a more significant and unifying date for a national celebration.

Peter | 19 January 2018  

Good article Fatima. Bad timing!

Bill | 19 January 2018  

Excellent article Fatima. You are correct. To ignore what the date means is a jerk thing to do. Australia was colonised with all the jerk things that happen through colonisation. Seizure of land and genocide

Lyn Bender | 21 January 2018  

The observance of Australia Day on 26th January is not a "forced compliance with colonial narratives" but an acknowledgement of historical fact. How would a different date show less "disrespect" to Aboriginal people? And why would does 26th January, more than any other date, have the capacity to "compromise those who have come here for a better life"? There are obviously some things about Australia that Fatima Measham does not like, but changing the date of Australia Day will not make a difference.

Peter Prineas | 21 January 2018  

Perhaps both Fatima and some of those commenting are taking Oz Day too seriously. There was an interesting article by Frank Bongiorno in the Conversation today (see < https://theconversation.com/why-australia-day-survives-despite-revealing-a-nations-rifts-and-wounds-89768 > which suggests that most people see it as little more than a day off to book-end, with Christmas, the summer break. Interestingly, Frank reminds us that it is the states, not the feds, that gazette public holidays. So maybe the whole pretentious and overblown ‘national identity’ bit could be resolved by one state taking the initiative and replacing its gazetted ‘Australia Day’ with an ‘End of Summer Longweeggen’ preferably on the last weekend in January.

Ginger Meggs | 22 January 2018  

Thanks Fatima for opening this discussion. Those objecting to “jerk” should re-read the article, specifically “being proud about something that alienates Indigenous peoples is a jerk thing to do”. What is the problem? It is not saying we should not celebrate Australia Day and the survey shows a significant number of people are happy to celebrate Australia Day on another less offensive date. The problem seems to be picking another date, but I think when a date is chosen it will catch on. Ken Wyatt’s suggestion of the date Australia becomes a republic makes sense but that could be some years away. I would like to suggest 9 May, the anniversary of the opening of the first Australian Parliament in Melbourne in 1901, when the six colonies came together as a nation. The date is not as important as getting in and remembering the reason for it. It is worthwhile remembering 26 January as the anniversary of the first permanent non-Indigenous settlement, a turning point in the history of our ancient land. Not as a day of national celebration, but something like Thanksgiving in the USA, which is quite different from the Fourth of July.

Brett | 22 January 2018  

As a schoolboy in the 1970s, I loathed Australia Day. Chiefly because it was an excuse for lazy teachers to flop into the school year, exhausted from the holiday round, and hit their students with the perennial first homework essay: "What Australia Day Means To Me". If that doesn't put one off, what would? I'm a tad unfair - I'm now grateful to the vast bulk of my teachers, even the slightly lazy ones. But I can't erase the memory of those stinking hot Canberra summer afternoons, when the tar bubbled on the road outside, penning meaningless jingoism (prompted by abovementioned lazy teachers) about Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet. Having now, decades later, read up a bit on the actual history of the First Fleet, and the relationship of the early colony with the aborigines, I'm full of admiration and wonder at the whole saga. There were villains and heroes, as well as good and decent ordinary folk on all sides. I'm shocked at the routine brutalities endured by aboriginal women (eg Barangaroo) from their men folk, touched by the aborigines’ collective outrage at convicts being whipped to the point of death, and uplifted at the story of their selfless rescuing of a whole boatload of settlers when a vessel capsized in Sydney Harbour. The 26th of Jan is about right: it's the day when a Christianised albeit imperfect culture settled itself on the same land as one that was just as imperfect, and alien (though by no means necessarily hostile) as could be. Like it or loathe it: this date is Ground Zero for that meeting on this continent. Mistakes have been made, crimes committed, and unbelievably incompetent policies enacted - sometimes from the loftiest of motives. But of course to say this is already to adopt an overarching point of view from which to critique. Granted. I privilege and defend as reasonable the Catholic/natural law position, which cherishes every human life from the moment of conception, without regard to race, colour or creed. Every single human being benefits from that insight, and its thoroughgoing implementation. That's what Australia Day now means to me.

HH | 22 January 2018  

If you want to commemorate: the origin of what is now a discrete and continuing national community, a date to do with the British claim to possession will have to do, unless you can identify the date when the first indigenous community was established on this continent; the establishment of this discrete and continuing national community as a nation-state in international law, the anniversary of 1-1-1901; when this nation-state explicitly became legally autonomous, March 3, the anniversary of the Australia Acts of the UK and Commonwealth parliaments in 1986 coming into effect, in which the UK parliament said it recused itself permanently from legislating for Australia. That’s about as close to independence as you can get without being conceptually irrational because the UK Parliament (as currently constituted) cannot bind itself, no matter what it says, even if it passes a law granting independence to Australia, even if Australians by referendum vote to change the definition of themselves in a Constitution which is only a British law. A part cannot, in concept, divorce itself from an organic whole, unless Britain never had a right to claim Australia and today’s Australian community is organically descended from the first indigenous community.

Roy Chen Yee | 22 January 2018  

Bravo HH for drawing attention to some of the currently politically incorrect truths regarding the early days of European settlement in this country. Yes, there were those white skinned rednecks who treated the Aborigines abysmally but there were also those who worked humanely for and with them. Many Aborigines embraced the white men ("boongs" in the local Eora and Ku-ring- gai Aboriginal dialects) while others fought a war (Pemulwuy, the Rainbow Warrior) and others did their own slaughtering of white men. That came to an end on both sides over a century ago and it is now the past from which there is nothing to be gained. There would be few white men who would desire the return to the culture and life style of those times and equally few modern day Aborigines who would yearn to return to theirs. Dwelling on the past has little to offer for the future

john frawley | 23 January 2018  

So many options for commerating the 26th of January. Remove the term Australia, call it Commeration Day and use the day in May when the constitution defined Australia as a nation. Commeration would neutralise a lot of antagonism and I think would have a suggestion of unity to it. There are so many dates that are being tossed around as alternatives it seems a little bewildering to me

mick jones | 24 January 2018  

Dwelling on past grievances, real or alleged, contributes nothing to a constructive future. We're all in this together, and the efficacy of reconciliation depends on mutual respect, collaborative ameliorative action and commitment to a common national identity.

John | 24 January 2018  

J.F., an eloquent summation beyond anything I could offer. Thank you.

HH | 30 January 2018  

I get the feeling we are becoming a society where doing something because it is right is growing secondary to doing something because it is popular. Governments should be leading public discussion of important issues, not waiting to see what the majority wants. So we have a public opinion poll on whether LGBTQI people should have the same civil rights as other people and nothing is done unless the majority agrees. There is no leadership in that. There may or may not be a majority in favour of moving Australia Day to another date, depending on who does the survey and what question is asked. Nobody is saying don’t celebrate Australia Day; they are just questioning the date. Is this really something that needs an opinion poll? We have people – generally conservative, generally male, generally white, generally seniors and generally socially well-off – pontificating that because bad things were done historically to and by Indigenous people (as if one wrong cancels another wrong), those who feel the historic pain of 26 January should have no case for wanting to change the date. It is good that some Indigenous people don’t have a problem with 26 January, but it is also clear that a good many do have a problem with it and have stated their reasons clearly. Australia struggles in so many areas of Indigenous life. Changing Australia Day won’t alter the work that still has to be done. That will go on, but why not fix what we can and put it behind us? What is so wrong with acknowledging what 26 January means to so many Indigenous people and changing the date of our national celebration, simply because it’s the right thing to do?

Brett | 31 January 2018  

Brett. We no longer live in a democracy where the majority rules. Indeed, the minority has become the politically correct determinator, driven by a confected guilt for the actions of our forebears. We have recently seen the preferred name for a ferry on Sydney Harbour (indicated by a 10 to 1 majority public survey) ignored in favour of the minority 10%. In today's SMH a public survey says 61 per cent of respondents want to retain Jan 26 as Australia Day. That almost certainly means that the minority 39 per cent will win out.! Our biggest public survey embracing the entire Australian eligible electorate favoured the changes that enabled same sex marriage in 49.5 per cent of eligible electors - the minority won out! Welcome to the new world, Brett. Let us hope the destroyers of the old have something better to replace it. I doubt that, however, when political brainwashing which attributes nothing but bad to the past in all aspects of life and lauds all that destroys much of our human diversity has become part of the education system beginning with kindergarten.

john frawley | 01 February 2018  

This is not about destroying the old, John, or “confected guilt” about what has gone before. It’s also not about “political correctness”, the term used when there isn’t a good reason to oppose something. Changing the date won’t change the facts of our history over the past 231 years. For good and bad it’s all there. Sometimes a Government has to lead on doing something that is right, regardless of the polls. Democracy is not only a “majority rules” popularity contest. A democratic society responds to the sensitivities and issues of its minority groups, in this case where those concerns affect Indigenous people. Our country will not be destroyed if Australia Day is celebrated on another date and a celebration that does not offend First Australians would be more inclusive than what we have now (incidentally, the country was not destroyed after the Mabo Decision debunked terra nullius either). Is that too much to ask? PS, using your faulty logic on the recent survey, only 30.4 percent of eligible voters actually opposed Marriage Equality becoming law (38% of 80%). You should be happy the majority won out so convincingly.

Brett | 01 February 2018  

" A recent poll found more than half of the respondents don't mind moving the day". A classic example of "driven polling" which gets the answer the pollsters want. Every neutrally worded poll on the subject has found between 70% and 90% want to leave Australia Day as it is. Even a majority of aborigines want this. And even your driven poll found that half the respondents were unaware that it is supposedly "offensive" to aborigines (or so it is claimed by handful if inner-urban neo-Marxists, mostly white, who claim to speak for aborigines. I have little regard for John Howard, but to suggest that he or anyone else ever made Australia Day about "whiteness" is utterly preposterous. Almost is absurd is your implication that concern about the influence of militant Islam is nothing but white racism. Islam is a religion, not a race. Many Moslems are white, including most Australian Moslems.

Peter K | 06 February 2018  

Peter and Jim, Australia Day was celebrated nationwide on 26th January long before John Howard came to power. And in any case public holidays are decided by State governments. Howard had absolutely nothing to do with the day we celebrate Australia Day. Australia Day is the day we celebrate the priceless gift of western Civilization being established in Australia. Not to mention Christianity. One thing we can all celebrate wholeheartedly. We have other national days and even a whole week to commemorate aborigines and the wrongs they suffered. Why should it take over Australia Day as well?

Peter K | 06 February 2018  

Jim, I grew up in Melbourne and have lived three for many years and I thought that I knew every anti-Sydney insult in existence. But your comment is the first time in my life I have ever seen or heard the term "Sydney Day". Just to check that I haven't been living under a rock, I googled the term and yep there is zero reference to it other than your comment. You're telling porkies mate.

Peter K | 06 February 2018  

The first “Australia Day” was actually held on July 30, 1915 to raise funds for the World War I effort. There is a 'Gold Donor" Medal in the Victorian Museum which shows this, It was a time for genrerosity and community good-will.and raising funds. As it was the 'first' time there was an Australia Day (and July was the Month for it to be celebrated) it continued to be the date for Australia Day until the 1930s it may be worth going back to this dste. Being Australians, though, there needs to be another Holiday. besides the one on the 26th, which could be renamed Surf Life Saving Day and funds raised to help all who swim at the various beaches. As long as there is a holiday and a retelling of the story of all of us , which the July Date and story do, we could easily move along as a Nation.

Laurie Sheehan | 26 February 2018  

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