Australia Day: conflicts and alternatives

This year I will again be honouring my convict ancestors’, Elizabeth Pulley and Anthony Rope, arrival in Sydney Cove/Warrane on 26th January 1788.  Elizabeth had been sentenced to be ‘hung by the neck till she be dead’.  She escaped that fate by being shipped to Australia.  Because of this I and our family have been given the gift of life yet I am well aware of the devastation it caused the First Peoples of Australia.  As I have written many times previously, while I am happy to celebrate my ancestors arrival in Sydney Cove/Warrane on this date, in my view designating 26th January as ‘Australia Day’ for all Australians is insensitive, unacceptable, and must change.

The Roving Date

Recently there has been increasing interest in and debate about the dating of ‘Australia Day’ and its designation as a national holiday.

In 2016 the Rope-Pulley Family Heritage Association newsletter[1]  discussed the different dating and versions of ‘Australia Day’ and the various celebrations held on 26th January both at a state and national level.[2]

More recently the Reconciliation Council of NSW uploaded additional information about, and history of resistance to the 26th January being designated ‘Australia Day’.[3] Some of it includes,

The 26th January as a national official public holiday called ‘Australia Day’ is recent (1994) and could well have been politically motivated as were earlier dates.  The first ever official national day that was actually named ‘Australia Day’ was July 30 in 1915, which was to raise funds for the World War I effort.  In 1916, the Australia Day committee that had formed (to organise the war effort fundraising the year before) determined that it would be held on July 28.  In 1837, the first Sydney Regatta was held. In 1838, crowds of people attended the event and to see the hoisting of the New South Wales flag. South Australia, Western Australia, and Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) were toasted as sister colonies, despite having their own celebratory day.[4]

In The many different dates we’ve celebrated Australia Day SBS has also traced the history of ‘Australia Day’ and its recent national significance concluding that “Australia Day officially became a public holiday for all states and territories only 24 years ago, in 1994.”

Protest

The Reconciliation Council of NSW has also traced the history of protest against the dating of ‘Australia Day’.  In 1938 on 26th January there was a significant Aboriginal protest against Australia Day, calling it a ‘Day of Mourning’ and, as the rally against Australia Day was held, 25 Indigenous men were told if they did not perform the role of ‘retreating Aborigines’ in a re-enactment of the First Fleet, their families would starve.[5]  Then, in 1972 the Aboriginal tent embassy was established in front of Parliament House.  In 1988 40,000 Aboriginal protesters and non-Aboriginal supporters marched from Redfern Park to a public rally at Hyde Park and then on to Sydney Harbour to mark the 200th anniversary of British invasion.[6]

The history and reasons for such protests about the dating and therefore original intention of Australia Day as “the idea of Australia’s national day being a celebration of British colonialism” (p. 175) are also detailed and examined in Professor Marcia Langdon’s Welcome to Country*.   “This absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their histories and cultures from the story of the Australian nation cannot be understated” (p.176)

Alternative events on 26th

There are an increasing number of events on offer that highlight this conflict.

In 2019 the Festival of Sydney began offering a vigil beginning at 8pm 25th January at Barangaroo Reserve, to signify ‘The Day Before Everything Changed’, in which the public was invited to participate.  In 2020 and 2021 the event was title was shortened to Vigil.

WugulOra Morning Ceremony, at Barangaroo Reserve on 26th.

For a number of years at 11 am on 26th there has been an Invasion Day protest and march beginning at the corner of Elizabeth and Liverpool streets, Warrang (Sydney).

Yabun Festival at Victoria Park has been an alternative event for many years which celebrates Aboriginal heritage, culture and survival.  In 2020 Inner West council changed its policy recommending that the community support this event instead of alternatives.  In 2021 because of COVID-19 restrictions the event is livestreamed.

In 2021 Anita Heiss, Professor of Communications at the University of Queensland and a  Wiradjuri woman offered her list of numerous alternative activities for the day, What you can read, view and do.

#Changethedate

It has been recognised for a long time that Australia Day and other national days in this country only celebrate post-colonial history.  There is no national celebration or holiday that celebrates anything of the previous 65,000+ years when the First Peoples lived on and managed the land, or recognises the ceremonies and celebrations they developed.  As can already be seen there is a lot of heartache and discomfort around the date in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. [7]

In 2017 Reconciliation Australia published an issue addressing the arguments around the need for change. 

Aboriginal coach, trainer and speaker Anny Druett also discusses background and issues involved suggesting the name ‘Acknowledgement Day’ as an alternative for 26th January: one which would have “the potential to connect us through cultural protocols that have been handed down for over 60,000 years, or over the last 4,000 generations”, so that “Australia will genuinely be able to commemorate and celebrate both our First Nations, and our continent: past, present and future.”

In 2021 Wiradjuri historian, author and Aboriginal engagement expert Nola Turner-Jenkins posted,

“I am getting asked more and more about what are my thoughts on Australia Day celebrations. My thoughts are this – the current public holiday and focus is for one society to celebrate a different Australian version of their English/European heritage, hard work, colonisation and exploration in search of a way to showcase a unique Australian identity.You have governance control and that is what you have decided is right for all Australians.  As a person who is of the First Nation people of this land it is not right for me to celebrate your version of an Australian identity.  It is not my identity.  I hold a different identity so why should my unique and ancient identity that already exists be forcibly diluted amongst your new one?”

Then there are #changethedate and #abolishthedate campaigns.

There was a documentary on NITV in 2019 during which an elder spoke of the tradition of the annual gathering of various tribal groups in October/Spring when plants emerge from the ground, and during which each group shared their tradition through stories/song, and I assume, dance. This communal gathering was well established long before the rest of us arrived and perfectly timed for our Australian climate…Spring…new beginnings…hope for the future/survival.  A perfect time for Australia day, especially as we already celebrate the Australian-specific Wattle Day around this time. [8]

Then in 2020 journalist and commentator Mungo Macallum wrote an excellent essay called The Long Lie which encapsulates many of my thoughts about the day and what I know of the early years of my ancestors’ lives at Sydney Cove/Warrane.

Summary

What Australia Day should be doing is honouring and respecting Australia’s complete history – at a time and in a format which recognises and respects our longest traditional culture and its history as well as sharing the stories of all cultures which have arrived more recently.

There are already councils around Australia who are deciding to move ‘Australia Day’ to a more appropriate time of the year or change the focus of the current date, in spite of the current government’s opposition and attempts to interfere.

As a First Fleet descendent I would love to be able to continue to celebrate my ancestors’ safe arrival on 26th January and at the same time acknowledge the ‘day of mourning’ it represents for descendants of Australia’s First Peoples: to rephrase one of the current events, The Day Everything Changed.  Is there a way?  Is it possible through some sort of reconciliation event, and transfer a nationally celebrated Australia Day to another time?

In the meantime, to bridge the gap the Reconciliation Council of NSW has offered Approaching 26 January respectfully: protocols and suggestions.

[1] Rope-Pulley Family Newsletter, January 2016, No. 81

[2]  not yet in all states

[3] https://www.facebook.com/reconciliationNSW

[4] https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/culture/article/2018/01/23/many-different-dates-weve-celebrated-australia-day?fbclid=IwAR1Sx4HexsSXLF7LrF1f4kHArixEsGBNU_Rr0a3V7_BNrNAu-pvTxNQHdUQ

[5] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-01-25/eighty-years-since-forced-first-fleet-reenactment/9358854

[6] This was the beginning of my real awareness that ‘there was something wrong’.  I had been involved in a number of reconciliation events which included choreographing an Australian history timeline in which the National Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theatre had been invited to take part, and was becoming increasingly aware how us ‘whities’ were speaking for ‘them’, and that we needed to listen.  I also remember walking down Elizabeth street with my family, dressed in colonial garb for the ‘official’ ceremony, seeing the thousands of protesters marching by and cheering them along.  I had put earrings of the Aboriginal flag in my ears as my own small protest;  not much…just a symbol/acknowledgement to myself.

[7] In his book, Australia Day*, Stan Grant who is of Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi and Irish descent also expresses his discomfort about Australia Day, “Those of us who identify as Indigenous, as First Peoples, we too grapple with our whiteness” and directly addresses the meaning and conflict around the day in the chapter, ‘What to Us is 26 January’ (pp. 229 ff.).

[8] There has been an upsurge in interest over the last two years regarding the designation of Wattle Day as Australia Day, Sydney Morning Herald, Opinion, 2017;  Sydney Morning Herald, Politics, 2017The New Daily 2018

* I have uploaded a short review and introduction to these books at Australia Day, Welcome to Country and Loving Country.

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