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The messiness of Australia Day


For a national day of celebration, Australia Day has had a varied, higgledy-piggledy and divisive history. In this, it echoes Australia itself and so provides a useful lens for reflecting on our national life. The recent defeat of the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament adds yet another discordant string to its history and underlines the unfinished business entailed in it.

January 26 marks the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour in 1788 to establish the English penal colony there. It also marks the beginning of the dispossession of the First Peoples and the destruction of their culture. First known as Foundation Day, its significance changed over time. Thirty years later, a boisterous celebration on the eve was followed on the next day by the Rum Rebellion in which soldiers arrested Governor Bligh. January 26 was then only one of the different Foundation Days celebrated by the different Colonies. Australia Day was instituted during the First Word War on another date to support the Australian troops, but by the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Fleet it was celebrated on January 26. By this time, too, Indigenous Australian groups called it a Day of Mourning for the alienation of their land that began with colonisation.

After the introduction of Australian citizenship in 1948 those awarded citizenship attended ceremonies by local councils including on Australia Day. The date of these ceremonies has in recent years been successively politicised, made exclusive, and relaxed, in response to the disputes about its suitability of the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet as a national day.  It has increasingly become a day of national division and not one of unity.

This messy background perhaps makes Australia Day a suitable occasion for recalling the destruction as well as the construction involved in colonisation and its legacy for all Australians. It evokes the loss of the First Australians as they endured despoliation, infection and discrimination, and encourages wonder at their resilience. It also recognises how the initial anxiety and hostility of the encounters of Indigenous Australians and the new arrivals have shaped the subsequent institutional and personal relationships between Indigenous and other Australians.

The impact of being driven off their tribal lands on the Indigenous Australians and their descendants continues to find expression in the higher level of discrimination and imprisonment and the lower life expectancy, health, access to education and work, and ability to participate in the decisions that impact on their lives than those experienced by other Australians. Australia Day does not commemorate triumphant achievement but unfinished business.


'Australia Day reminds us that the effects of colonial settlement need to be acknowledged, the harm suffered by Indigenous Australians to be owned, and a reconciliation sought that enshrines in culture, law and administration their unique status in Australia.'


The decisive vote against the Voice to Parliament has not changed this reality. Indeed it has highlighted the incoherence involved in declaring January 26 a day that will gather all Australians in celebration. It intensifies their divisions.  Certainly, Australians who voted no in the Referendum may have had many reasons for doing so, including a general suspicion of government initiatives, a lack of understanding of what it involved, reluctance to alter the Constitution, and resentment at economic hardships faced by Australians. The defeat of the Referendum, however, also left untouched the challenge that it was designed to address: the injustice, violence, suffering and cultural loss involved in colonisation in Australia and its abiding legacy in discriminatory attitudes embodied in the institutional treatment of their descendants. The response to these evils, proposed by Indigenous representatives, was to enshrine a voice in the Constitution as an expression of reconciliation. With that proposal rejected, the reality of a long history of discrimination and abiding differences in health, education and other areas remains unaddressed. 

The proper observance of Australia Day should perhaps be messy. It includes the freedom to enjoy the sunshine that is given to the just and unjust, to Indigenous and other Australians alike. It should also include recognition of the history in which the first inhabitants were dispossessed and marginalised with consequences that continue to be experienced by their descendants. Australia Day reminds us that the effects of colonial settlement need to be acknowledged, the harm suffered by Indigenous Australians to be owned, and a reconciliation sought that enshrines in culture, law and administration their unique status in Australia.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australia Day, Indigenous, Referendum, Reconciliation



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Existing comments

If we were looking for a simple and respectful solution (and of course it becomes increasingly clear that as a community we are NOT) we would look to history.
We would go back to calling 26 January Anniversary Day.For a very long time that was what 26 January was (Australia Day as you note was something quite different).

That way we would remember ALL the ways in which the anniversary is significant. Though I no longer feel comfortable celebrating Australia Day, I am equally ‘uncomfortable’ marking Invasion Day. The arrival of the First Fleet was not about invasion (so yes there is a place for a Day of Mourning for what went so very badly wrong in succeeding years).

We manage this depth of meaning quite comfortably for Anzac Day No one considers it insensitive to recall that on 15 April 1915 we were engaged (ultimately victoriously) in a war against many of the countries from which 21st century Australians have come in large numbers.
Equally no one recalls that our allies in WW1 included Japan (as a daughter of a POW I grew up regarding Japan as the traditional enemy).

Surely a mature nation ought to be able to cope with that kind of tension, even ambiguity.

If we want a day to celebrate what Australia has become, then Federation Day on 1 January will serve admirably.Without Federation we would not have Australia as we know it.

And we do not need an extra public holiday.

And if the only reason that choice is not favoured is that we don’t want to overindulge two days in succession: well that is rather sad.

Margaret | 26 January 2024  

I wonder what, in a country such as France, would happen if a group of people tried to disrupt the annual Bastille Day celebrations on the 14th of July on the grounds of France's appalling colonial history in countries like Algeria and the marginalization of France's millions of citizens of North African Muslim heritage? That would be a perfectly fair stance, but I am not sure if it would achieve anything positive. Likewise, I am unsure whether the sometimes petulant posturing and empty rhetoric of the variegated anti-Australia Day lobby achieves anything positive. The First Fleet was never meant as an invasion fleet, but as an attempt to give some relatively fortunate British criminals a fresh chance in a supposedly 'empty' land. In retrospect, possibly not the brightest of ideas. We all, whatever our backgrounds, live in the aftermath of the British Empire, with its good and bad effects. Where do we move on from here? The referendum on the Voice was dreadfully managed on a number of fronts. The people who mismanaged it are still in power. Their opponents were no more impressive. Are we going to involve ourselves in endless non-productive talkfests by the usual suspects or is there a positive way of moving on from here? If so, we desperately need to find it.

Edward Fido | 26 January 2024  
Show Responses

Without disagreeing with your post, Edward, I might add to it that there would probably be no Universal Declaration of Human Rights without the French and their murderous Revolution.

The problem then with both such an event as well as the milder but no less unalloyed British preference for imposing their imagined largesse and felicity over vast tracts of other persons' territory is that we now know, and hopefully in light of that accept, is that both imperial usurpers inflicted a wound on the body of humankind that we now have the opportunity to heal and cure.

Therefore, rather than tiring over pointless arguments about whether either or both sides did some good or not, the presence of a very much better educated and hopefully more dynamic younger generation heralds the opportunity for us all to start afresh, untrammeled by the divisions and arguments of the last four or five centuries by rejecting the highly predestinarian views of history that have been handed down to us by Hollywood and the rest of our popular media and start again.

Perchance alluding to the Garden of Eden story, central to 'Laudate si' (and reprised in 'Laudate Deum') enables us to do this.

Michael Furtado | 30 January 2024  

Short, eloquent in its juxtaposition with the 'unfinished' referendum result and heart-wrenchingly sweet! We indeed 'need no reminding of the depth of the division that exists in our Australian community.' Thank you, Andy, for saying it for me.

Michael Furtado | 27 January 2024  

"Australia Day does not commemorate triumphant achievement but unfinished business." It could do both.

"the initial anxiety and hostility of the encounters of Indigenous Australians and the new arrival" I would have written 'anxiety, hostility and curiosity ...'

"reconciliation sought that enshrines in culture, law and administration their unique status in Australia." When I wrote to my MP years ago suggesting moving Australia Day to January 1, I also suggested that a new holiday be created called National Aboriginal Culture Day, which would be a positive day to celebrate Aboriginal culture and a learning opportunity for the rest of us. But I differ when it comes to unique status expressed in laws and administration. Too divisive. Maintaining cultural heritages can work in a community, setting up racially/culturally based institutional structures won't. 

Russell | 01 February 2024  

Dear Andrew,
Until we have decided on another day it might mean we need to call it AustraliaDay/ Invasion Day!
It might mean commemorating the sadness of colonisation but I feel it needs to reflect the positive contributions of non indigenous Australians.I think that we are all cowering and slinking quietly away under the burden of guilt and its not surprising that there was a big exodus from the city to holiday retreats and a big no. turned out to demonstrate including Nazis.Is this the public face of Australia Day that we are left with?Not everyone voted no to the referendum!
I think we as a society can do better and if the local councils,state and federal governments aren't prepared to bring some reconciled face to the day then this vacuum needs to be filled with some church leadership.

I'm afraid if we sit on our laurels in this regards the day will deteriorate further,with further statues being destroyed,defacing of public objects etc.

I know that it falls at a time when most people are on holidays but maybe with some planning and foresight we could as a local church parishes or school communities make some small gestures.

For example a prayer vigil to be arranged or communal prayers leading up to the event.

Inviting Aboriginal speakers or maybe having a smoking ceremony on the day to create a spiritual type of absolution for past wrongs.

Music is a great uniting force and is very healing.
We could have a performance of didgeridoo,indigenous dance and the "song "We are Australian".With an indigenous person singing the verse "I come from the dreamtime"....

Nigel Sculthorpe an Australian composer has composed music.

It may need some liaison with members of the Aboriginal Catholics or getting their blessing.

Overall there is a need to claw back some self respect and pride for both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in the public domain.

And finally we could have a BBQ also!And raise both flags!!

I wonder if the youth unrest and high rates of youth crime and violence in someway reflects a lack of respect for "white elders" especially.

Some of this is warranted but not all of it, and we need to build respect back into our public events.

Even if it is a small gesture it is a good thing because we as Christians "are all one race".
It is not uplifting for us to buy into too much division.

Finally there have been some great international achievements by non-indigenous Australians in recent years and we should be encouraged by these men and women as well as our Indigenous elders.The men who helped save the Thai youth trapped in the caves and the man who helped the trapped Indian miners and brought them out alive.
The Australian doctors and their cancer research.
Australian leadership and ingenuity should be celebrated by us all from all quarters of the Australian population and we should celebrate our great successes as a nation.

Best regards


Roz | 05 February 2024  

I think I meant Peter Sculthourpe,composer,not Nigel Sculthorpe.Sorry

Roz | 05 February 2024  

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