An Australia Day tradition that has emerged over recent years is to fiercely debate whether or not we should even celebrate Australia Day on the 26th of January. Calls to “change the date” grow louder each year, even as the majority of Australians remain supportive of the date as it stands.
Several years ago, Triple J moved its popular Australia Day Hottest 100 countdown away from the 26th of January. This year, we’ve heard Independent MP Zali Steggall call for a minute’s silence on our national holiday, and we’ve seen the Big Bash League re-badge its Australia Day game as simply the “January 26” match.
As the January news cycle each year testifies, Australia Day can be a divisive issue.
Most of us are now familiar with the “change the date” argument—that the 26th of January was the date Governor Philip raised the Union Jack in Sydney Cove, declaring British sovereignty over what had long been Indigenous land. We know of the terrible massacres that followed, and the horrific treatment that Indigenous Australians suffered at the hands of the colonising Europeans—some of which sadly persisted into last century.
This is the reason we’re given for why our national holiday should not be celebrated on the 26th of January. Indeed, the argument that often accompanies this is that anyone in favour of the status quo is being insensitive, selfish, and possibly even racist.
I’m unconvinced—and for a number of reasons.
Like any nation, we need a date to celebrate our national unity, history and values. This is just as true for Indigenous Australians as it is for people of every other ethnicity who have come to call Australia home.
Theoretically, our national holiday could be any date: some have suggested the 1st of January to mark Federation, or the 9th of May, when Australia became self-governing. But many of the voices calling for change (besides being predominantly white and from our inner cities) are critical of Australia per se, and are unlikely to celebrate Australia’s history and values on any date. Indeed, if we changed dates, the new holiday would likely become another opportunity for these people to draw attention to Australia’s sins and shortcomings.
Jacinta Price is a Walpiri woman and the Indigenous program director of the Centre for Independent Studies. She points out that mourning Australia’s past injustices—which is entirely understandable—is something we already do on National Sorry Day, held on the 26th of May each year. Why not mourn our past on that date, she suggests, while still celebrating our great nation on the holiday we already know as Australia Day?
In a recent interview on this subject, Price explained that January 26th is significant for many reasons. It was on this date in 1949 that the inhabitants of our continent—including all Indigenous Australians—were declared to no longer be British subjects, but Australians. It is for this reason that the 26th of January is the most popular day of the year for people to choose to become Australian citizens.
Jacinta Price also highlights a protest that took place on this date in 1938, when a group of Indigenous men and women gathered at Sydney’s Australia Hall to ask for equality and full citizenship status. This, too, is a proud event worth celebrating.
Racism is still a sad reality in modern Australia. But celebrating Australia Day is not an expression of this. It is a day of national pride—including for the countless Indigenous Australians who hold Australia Day events and celebrations.
Australia is far from perfect. Each of us have a responsibility to confront our own prejudices, and to promote harmony and respect for everyone who makes up modern Australia. And there are many ways that all Australians can pray for and support Indigenous communities facing big challenges such as suicide, domestic violence, and poor health outcomes.
Let’s continue to remember and care for each other. But let’s not allow Australia Day to become divisive. We are a great people, and we have overcome many dark chapters to forge a national identity that is the envy of the world.
We are stronger together—and that’s worth celebrating. Happy Australia Day!