Words || Neenah R. Gray
Australia Day is not an inclusive day for everyone who calls themselves Australian. For non-Indigenous People, the 26th of January is a celebration of national pride, that is marked by the coming of the First Fleet of the British Colony in 1788. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, this day marks the beginning of the foundation myth of Terra Nullius that justified the invasion of Australia and inherently the start of the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people. Alongside the White Australia Policy, Terra Nullius was the national foundation that laid Australia. Sadly, these do not reflect the true value and nature of what it means to be an Australian. Thus, a re-evaluation of the day and what it means to be an Australian should go under some consideration.
This article analyses the historical controversy that surrounds January 26th as a national holiday. This article will conclude with the need to move away from British Colonialism, and the subconscious White Australia Policy that still dictates the Australian Political System and the Australian ethos. I will also propose a new date for Australia Day – May 8th, or Maaaaate as I believe this is more reflective of the true nature and image of Australia.
Australia Day is a controversial day, bringing uneasiness from its historical meaning to how it has evolved to be a national day. January 26th marks the arrival of the First Fleet on the shores of Botany Bay in 1788 led by Captain Arthur Philip of the British Colony. It marks the introduction of a new way of life that saw consequences for the ones who had practiced egalitarianism previously for over 80,000 years. Captain Philip, along with 1480 men, women and children, brought an entrenched world view that would later lay the foundations of Australian Nationalism. The raising of the Union Jack Flag was used to symbolise that the British were now in control and had dominion over what we now call Australia. The claiming of Australia was legitimized under the notion of Terra Nullius meaning ‘land belonging to no one’ to discredit Aboriginal Lore and custom that had already governed this vast nation. Terra Nullius was the foundation myth that stripped Aboriginal People of their cultural identity and human rights in order to prepare for the British control. The First Fleet meant for the convicts on board a fresh start and a new life. For Aboriginal People living, within the now Sydney region, it meant that their existing way of life and cultural Dreaming was in danger.
In conjunction with these entrenched views of White Australian Nationalism, the justification of the massacre of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People prevailed during Settlement. Government policies that existed, such as the White Australia Policy and Terra Nullius justified the murder of First Nations people between 1788 and 1901. In 1920, 250,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People were killed, or had died due to diseases. A 1798 report by the Judge-Advocate and Secretary of the Colony, David Collins, indicates the extent of disease pursuing Aboriginal Australia.
“At that time a native was living with us; and on taking him down to the harbour to look for his former companions, those who witnessed his expression and agony can never forget either. He looked anxiously around him in the different coves we visited; not a vestige on the sand was to be found of human foot; … not a living person was anywhere to be met with. It seemed as if, flying from the contagion, they had left the dead to bury the dead. He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time; at last he exclaimed, ‘All dead! all dead!’ and then hung his head in mournful silence”
January 26th stands for a beacon of change for both the British and the Aboriginal People: a change that brought bloodshed through the notion of survival. January 26th is a day that represents the cruel intentions to diminish a people group to justify the acquisition of Australian soil by the British Colony in 1788.
‘Australia Day’ as a celebrated national holiday is only relatively new within the scheme of Australian History. This acknowledges that January 26th is not well established. The date was depicted as Foundation Day or Landing Day prior to Federation but was not officially recognised or established as a public holiday until 1994 under the Keating Government. In fact, during World War I Australia has evidence of trying to secure July 30th as the National day of celebration. The idea of Australia being celebrated on the 26th of January came from a re-enactment of the First Fleet onto Botany Bay in 1938. The re-enactment saw 25 Aboriginal men being forced to dance and if they refused they were threatened with the removal of rations or simply shot. They were locked in jail cells the night preceding the event.
This inhuman celebration and blackmail sparked protests throughout the city of Sydney, and it was called a Day of Mourning in the Aboriginal community. The 150th anniversary celebrations saw the largest Aboriginal Protest to circum Australia. This original celebration of Landing Day has never illustrated a progressive society, or an inclusive community. To Aboriginal and Torres Strait People across the nation, this day has always marked a mourning period. January 26th reconciles with Sorry Business. It has been a day to recognise British governance over Australia, and the discrediting of Aboriginal and Torres Strait human rights and cultural lore.
From the beginning of Australian History, the hardship and the trauma that proceeded January the 26th is a constant reminder for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as the celebrations for Australia Day take place. Early days of Australian Colonialism is very much indicative of the ‘master and controlled’ intentions that the British had adopted as a framework for their relationship with Aboriginal People. The notion of Terra Nullius has been favourable to non-Indigenous Australians throughout the development of the nation. It has been reassurance for non-Indigenous people, reinforcing the archetype of the ‘discovery’ of the country and simultaneously dehumanising Australia’s First Nation Peoples.
Terra Nullius strengthened by the notion of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, saw for the extermination of Aboriginal People and a scientific approach was taken in observation for anthropological purposes. Proceeding such ideologies gave rise to 230 years of public policy and hidden agenda that justified significant numbers of murders, and massacres throughout Australian history. These massacres are remembered as events such as The Stolen Generation, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and many more.
For Aboriginal People, celebrating on the day of the arrival of the First Fleet is remembering the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People from the time of Colonialism through to the 21th Century. It is the memory of the injustice that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have faced throughout major events in Australian history. January 26th marks the start of the Invasion that took a complex 232 years to complete and in some ways is still continuing to this day. Thus changing the date of Australia Day would recognise the dispossession, the injustice and the inhumanity that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People have endured caused by Terra Nullius. The new date of Australia Day would also recognise the need for Indigenous People to be a part of Australia’s modern identity and to remember that White Australia has a Black History.
Australia is one of the leading nations in multiculturalism, yet a sense of belonging is questioned when notions of Australia Day and the symbolism of the Australian Flag still have remnants of the White Australia Policy. Multiculturalism was the dream that succumbed the nation during the 19th century. It was used as a defence mechanism against the“cheap imported labour” threat that immigration imposed. Since then, Australia’s migrant population has seen an increase, statistics depicting 60% of Australia’s population growth was due to immigration in 2013. Australia as a political body has played a significant part being exclusive to a predominantly white, male society that embodies ‘egalitarian’ values.
The difficulty with Australia’s multiculturalism is that people’s understanding is based upon superficial ideas of what constitutes cultural difference and cultural doing. This creates boundaries of fear. For some migrants, Australia Day and the overrepresentation of the Australian Flag illustrates the difficulties and the hardship faced by the racist heritage that depicted Australia’s unity. There have been numerous occasions throughout Australia’s History that have seen the idea of Australian White Nationalism expressed through the symbolism of the Australian Flag that has caused discontent throughout the migrant community. The problematic feature of Australia being a multicultural society, is that it does not overcome the fear of the different cultural practices that are seen to threaten and damage Australian identity.
In order to combat against migrant inclusion, the Australian Government has had Citizenship Ceremonies as part of Australia Day event programs. Sixteen thousand people have received their citizenship on Australia Day in 2019 to promote “unity as a nation and … commitment to Australia and its people, the values we share and our common future,” according to the Australia Day website online. Although this seems like a great idea, the inherent ideology behind this is similar to the Assimilation Policy of 1951. The quote above does not portray the true meaning of Australia, and does not acknowledge people coming from afar only to unify them into the current scheme of Australia. The ‘common future’ inherently is still indicative of racist colonial ideologies. The changing of the date of Australia Day would inherently diminish the White Australia Policy and justify the debunking of Australia preserving a British-derived culture.
A new date for Australia Day is May 8—Maaaaate which I would like to argue is more indicative of the true nature and identity of Australia that we as a Nation are still in the midst of creating. The idea has stemmed from Facebook public influencer, Jordan Raskopoulos, in an attempt to explain, in a less than two minute video, why January 26th raises controversy within First Nations communities. Coming from a migrant background herself, she understands the true nature that encompasses Australian identity – mateship. The idea of mateship has been at the heart of the Australian being since its first international affair of World War I. The Gallipoli campaign saw mateship strengthen Australia, asserting an independence and identity away from its motherland, Britain.
Mateship was centralised by the key features of ‘sacrifice and national duty’ that sought the discovery of Australia’s national identity. This is also a chance for Australia to recognise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers that sacrificed their lives for the greater good of Australia. The idea of the ANZAC Digger has played such an important role in history that it has idealised the heroic aspect of national identity for some Australians. It is a depiction of fulfilment of hope and ‘superhuman bravery.’
The Aussie Digger had encompassed the nature of patience and persistence handling the harshness of the bush, and patriotism and mateship that stemmed from their experience in the war – making for a holistic man, and at the same time acknowledging the women that played their part in the war effort. The ability of May 8 to acknowledge Australia’s past wrongdoings and to celebrate what it means to be Australian starting from Australia’s greatest military setback is more than plausible. Mateship today in modern Australian society is more than accepted within Australian vernacular and being. It has a platform with a strong historical background and something that can reside in all Australians.
In conclusion, the date of Australia Day needs to be readjusted in order to be more inclusive to those who have migrated here, and our First Nations Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The changing of the date would acknowledge Australia as debunking values of British Colonialism that are still entrenched in the political system. The Australian Constitution, laws and policies are still drenched in colonial ideologies that have subconsciously been embedded into the fabrication of Australian society lingering with the notions of Terra Nullius and the White Australia Policy.
Moving away from British Colonialism is essential to the rendering of the Australian Identity and would inherently cause for a more inclusive celebration of a national holiday. The notion of mateship has the potential to be more thoroughly embedded in Australian society, and would re-create Australia’s National and International Image. Celebrating Australia Day on May 8 would be an inclusive date as it encompasses the true nature of mateship, belonging, bravery and sacrifice that Us as Australians value and we know produces a better nation for all.