In Australia, you know politics is getting serious when we start talking about public holidays. The holiday in question has been a day of BBQs, beaches and music for decades for many Australians, but since 1938 it is a date that has been protested by Indigenous Australians.
In 1935 States and Territories adopted the name “Australia Day” for January 26, in recognition of the day British sovereignty was proclaimed over the eastern half of the country.
On that date, 229 years ago, our First Peoples were invaded. They have faced two and quarter centuries of violence and dispossession. The January 26 marks the beginning of what is now widely regarded as genocide.
It is simply inappropriate to use this day to celebrate our country, when it represents such a dark day for the first peoples of this country. The amount of hurt and destruction that the colonisation of Australia brought, and in many respects continues to bring, to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples makes our celebration crass and cruel.
Not only is Australia Day insensitive, but it also doesn’t make sense. In 1788 or even 1808 when the day was first marked, the States and Territories had not yet entered into Federation – Australia at the time was little more than NSW.
We have an obligation to change the date, and pick a day every Australian can rally behind. There are plenty of options: May 8 (say it out loud, mate) is being offered around by some, and May 27 – the date Australia passed a referendum on counting Aboriginal Australians in the Census – is the option for those with a more historical bent. It’s really not a choice for politicians, but for the Australian community, and it is a change which must happen.
A little over 82 years ago, Jack Patten, Aboriginal activist and first President of the Aborigines Progressive Association, together with William Ferguson, a trade unionist and Aboriginal politician, co-authored a pamphlet titled "Aborigines Claim Citizens Rights". It was part of a rising tide of Aboriginal activism in response to white Australia's celebration in 1938 of the sesquicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet in what was to become Sydney. They were Elders from this State worth remembering and their words are worthy of repeating. They said in part:
"You are the New Australians, but we are the Old Australians. We have in our arteries the blood of the Original Australians, who have lived in this land for many thousands of years. You came here only recently, and you took our land away from us by force. You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation."
January 26 should remain as a public holiday, a day to reflect on our history and pay our respects to the first peoples of this nation, but move Australia Day to another date and make it a day for all of us, not just some.