Australia Day is arguably the most unique national day in the world because, rather than unite, it seems to divide Australians into different viewpoints. It is celebrated on January 26, which is the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of criminals in 1788. Ironically, Australian governments have been reluctant to acknowledge this history with any prescriptive symbolism or speeches. Without any prescriptive symbolism, the majority of Australians just use the day to have a barbeque or do some other pastime that takes advantage of the great things about the Australian lifestyle.
While the lack of prescription is embraced by some, it concerns the more somber minded Australians who have interpreted it to mean that the government is celebrating the invasion of Australia and the dispossession of Aborigines. These Australians usually use the day to participate in an Aboriginal protest march or call for the date to be changed. Typical views include:
" The 26th of January is an inappropriate date for Australia Day as it merely represents the anniversary of the arrival of the British to establish the penal colony of New South Wales. It does not represent of birth of a nation and disengages the aboriginal and non-British communities from their sense of involvement in nationhood. It also sends the wrong message to our Asian neighbours, reminding them of our European roots." Daniel Bryant
" Instead of reciting the oath on Australia day, which commemorates the founding of a prison in Sydney, why don't we Victorians recite the oath on the anniversary of the laying of the first stone of Pentridge Prison? " Tobin Maker
“Australia Day should be changed to a more suitable date, rather than the one that not only insults the rightful owners of this land, our indigenous peoples, but conveniently disregards the non-White (sic) migrants.” Australia Day = Shame Day
“Nature and diversity of culture for me is Australias(sic) beauty. I wonder how Aboriginal people would view this lunacy.” Michele Walker
(From the Age Thursday January 16, 2003 )
Although Australia Day has virtually no symbolic meaning today, its origins can be traced to a desire for egalitarianism that much of the world has strived for and which arguably no country has achieved as successfully as Australia. For Convicts, January 26 1788 was not a happy time. It marked the establishment of a penal colony where they suffered some of the worst human rights violations that the world had even seen. Women were pack raped by officers on transport ships and then assigned to free settlers as if cattle. Men were flogged until their backbones were exposed to the flies. Despite these hardships, or perhaps because of them, in 1808 emancipated Convicts used January 26 as a date to organise great parties to celebrate the land they lived in. In a way, the parties celebrated their survival. Although the more “reputable” members of colonial society weren’t too keen on putting the old ball and chain on their legs in tribute to the founding fathers and laying down in a sexual pose in tribute to the mothers, they just couldn't say no to a great party.
As the parties grew in size, emancipists and their children infused them with political edge as they campaigned to have the same rights as free British migrants. In 1818, their cause was embraced by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who acknowledged the day with its first official celebration of what was then known as Foundation Day. Macquarie declared that the day would be a holiday for all government workers, granting each an extra allowance of "one pound of fresh meat", and that there should be a 30 gun salute at Dawes Point – one for each year that the colony had existed.
By 1888, all Australian colonies bar South Australia (which prided itself on its Convict free status) were celebrating Foundation Day or Anniversary Day.
In 1935, Anniversary Day officially became known as Australia Day and was promoted as a day for national unity. Of course, the small issue of Convicts still proved somewhat problematic when it came to acknowledging and celebrating the history. The solution was to simply erase them from history. For example, at a 1938 re-enactment of the first fleet’s arrival, there were Aborigines and British soldiers but no Convicts.
|The Founding of Australia (1937) by Algernon Talmadge|
By the time of the 1988 Bicentennial, the policy of ignoring history while celebrating history was seriously offending Aboriginal groups along with white activists wanting to support Aboriginal groups. Large scale protest marches were organised to communicate their perspective that Australia Day should be seen as Invasion Day or Survival Day. Basically, by trying hard not to offend with any prescriptive meaning or acknowledgement of the past, governments had offended many. Arguably, if governments had been more prone to celebrate the egalitarian politics that initiated the first Australia Days then they might have found that the day would be more palatable. In addition, if governments acknowledged the human tragedy of the First Fleet, then instead of Australia Day being interpreted as a celebration of that tragedy, it could be an opportunity to reflect upon how far Australia has come and perhaps how far it still has to go. Furthermore, it would be more akin to Anzac Day, which is likewise built on the anniversary of a tradegy.
Another suggested date is December 3, the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade. The main problem with this idea is that the Eureka Stockade has some associations with unionism and white supremacy. Such associations tend to divide Australians rather than unite them. While a barbeque or musical festival may not be sombre, at least they are superior to some kind of political argument over workers rights or genetic superiority.
In many ways, the date of Australia Day is great precisely because not everyone feels the same way about it. It produces what has been referred to as opal definition of who Australians are. Like an opal, the date diffracts light to produce a spectrum of colours. While this bothers those who want unity, conformity, morality and something to salute, it gives individual Australians the freedom to really define what Australia means to them.
Editorial - The Australian January 26, 2009
Just as critics argue that Australia Day celebrates a state and society that have done Aborigines many wrongs, others argue there is nothing uniquely Australian to celebrate, on this or another day. Certainly, there is no checklist of chants and speeches that are part of all our Australia Day celebrations. There are no rituals that everybody undertakes. People will celebrate the day in parks all over the country, eating as many dishes as there are countries from which we come. Some will watch cricket, others will wonder why people care about the game. Most will surf in their Speedos but many young women will laugh in the waves, much more modestly attired. Very few of them, first and fifth generation alike, will be able to articulate anything about why we should celebrate Australia, other than that it is home. And that is the point. Australia is a nation united by the idea that all are welcome who want to call the country home. Inevitably, this assumption is abused by people intent on imposing their version of how the country should be, some whose families have been here for many generations and others but one. We saw the disgraceful outcome of these attitudes in the circumstances surrounding the December 2005 Cronulla riot. But Australia has welcomed nearly seven million migrants since 1945, demonstrating that the vast majority of us have an expansive idea of who can be included among "all" Australians.