Every country has an argument that seems to divide the nation in some way. With the advent of social media, these arguments all seem to have taken on a more culture war tone: Brexit, Trump, climate change, J.K Rowling, to name a few.
Whilse those topics all render in the national lexicon somewhere, nothing ignites the culture war conversation quicker in Australia than January 26: Australia Day. That’s the date (give or take one or two days) that the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788, raising the Union Flag for the first time and eventually founding the colony of New South Wales.
January 26 has taken on all the fanfare and jingoistic displays of flags and national colors that we see during the 4th of July in the United States, or Bastille Day in France. For many, it’s a proud day. Citizenship ceremonies were traditionally only held on this date, the “Australian of the Year” is announced, and – since 1994 – it is a public holiday, with some cricket thrown in for good luck.
However, there was no invitation to the party for Indigenous people in 1788. They didn’t exist in any meaningful way to the colonizers that had arrived; they were routinely referred to simply as natives. There wasn’t an “Australia,” either, for the nation didn’t exist until the loose affiliation of colonies got sick of switching gauges on railway lines and became a Commonwealth on January 1, 1901.
The celebration of Australia Day belies a truth: for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, this was the beginning of a period that included massacres, claims of genocide, and removal of children, and has led – directly or indirectly – to Indigenous Australians being one of the most disadvantaged groups of people in the world. The term “invasion day” has been bandied about, and Indigenous people often refer to it as “survival day.” January 26 sees marches, “mourning” ceremonies, and a growing call to “change the date.”
“It’s a sad day which is full of mixed emotion for Aboriginal people,” Traditional Owner and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung man Colin Hunter told SBS in 2022. “I think we tend to reflect on the past real strongly on this day. The rest of the nation is celebrating while we are not.”
This view has seen a significant pushback from many – mainly conservative – commentators and politicians, who object to the interpretation of, in the words of controversial Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey, a “black armband view of history.”
Australia’s most conservative prime minister since Robert Menzies, John Howard, defended the day, saying in 1997: “I don’t think it is wrong, racist, immoral or anything, for a country to say ‘we will decide what the cultural identity and the cultural destiny of this country will be and nobody else.’” Cabinet papers released recently by the National Archives revealed how his government worked behind the scenes in 2003 to fight against recognizing the right of Indigenous peoples to “self-determination” in the U.N. declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples then under development. The Howard government ultimately opposed its adoption in 2007, and Australia didn’t sign on until 2009.
In 2021, when queried about Indigenous suffering since 1788, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters “it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either,” referring to the members of First Fleet, who landed in Australia as convicts.
Rightly or wrongly, conservatives have seen the push against Australia Day by many – often labeled snidely as “elites” or dismissively as from the “inner-city” – to be part of a broader attack on a perceived Australian way of life. This includes an apparent derision of Australian history at schools that fail to be patriotic enough and proposals to prosecute war crimes being seen as “woke.”
Australia Day is often seen as the ultimate iconoclast target. When the Voice referendum was in full swing, conservative channels occasionally suggested the ultimate goal of progressives was to change the date, proposed as a pernicious Trojan horse to losing everything viewers treasures. Too much talk of past indiscretions, however egregious, runs the risk of damaging the ties that bind us, their arguments ran.
This week the virulent discourse flared again when Woolworths – one of the two traditional grocery shopping powerhouses in the country – announced it would forgo the sale of Australia Day paraphernalia, pointing to both a lack of sales of such merchandise and a bigger conversation around Australia Day. It immediately earned the ire of opposition leader Peter Dutton, who handled the topic with the subtlety of a cudgel.
“Other companies haven’t done it [stopped selling Australia Day merchandise] and on that basis, I think Australians should boycott Woolworths,” Dutton said.
“For Woolworths to start taking political positions to oppose Australia Day is against the national interest, the national spirit.”
For a leader who has espoused the benefit of a free market economy without intervention, abhors “cancel culture,” and walked out of the Stolen Generation apology in 2008, it was hubristic to say the least. The national spirit mantra also oddly seems to only apply to people who agree with the view that Australia is the “Lucky Country” (a term taken as a badge of honor by Australians but actually written as a sarcastic criticism of the nation).
The issue is that any discussion around the real reason for wanting to change the date is lost. Terms such as “virtue signaling” are thrown around, often without merit, which then reduces the debate into petty culture war score settling.
I have been fortunate to cover Indigenous affairs in Australia for several years, coming from a position most journalists in the country originate from: White, middle class, and tertiary educated. When you fit these criteria, your interaction with Indigenous people is greatly reduced. As such, stories of suffering, pain, poverty and hardship are rarely heard in the Australian media unless it is during things like the divisive Voice debate. Plans to improve the outcomes for Indigenous people – despite some good intentions – are often put to the periphery and cast aside at the first chance.
Last year I covered a coronial inquiry for Cindy and Mona Lisa Smith, who were killed in 1987. A White male was driving a car that crashed and, in the aftermath, all evidence pointed to him sexually interfering with Cindy after she had died. He was only charged with a driving offense and found not guilty. The inquest involved significant errors, but it took 36 years for it to be looked at, despite most coronial inquiries taking place in the immediate aftermath of a trial. There will never be justice for the mothers of the two girls.
2022-23 saw the highest number of Indigenous deaths in custody since records began. And Dr. Hannah McGlade told The Diplomat recently that the situation isn’t getting better. Neither is life expectancy in outback communities. Diseases largely eradicated in Western cities are still prevalent among Indigenous people. One person I spoke to told me she has been to three funerals a month – every month – such is the suicide epidemic among the Indigenous community.
These are not flippant things. This is not a culture war. This is the reality for the oldest continuously living people on Earth. And Aboriginal people don’t need me, or any other non-Indigenous person to say this for them; they are saying it. Nobody is listening.
No other country celebrates the dismantling of one Indigenous group’s way of life as their national day. Even if changing the day doesn’t immediately improve some of the metrics, it will not cause any harm.
Indigenous people were not citizens when the country was founded in 1901. Despite the 1967 referendum granting all Aboriginal people full citizenship, some didn’t gain full voting rights until 1984. January 26 isn’t a day of unity for 3.8 percent of the population, and when conservatives label people who don’t celebrate Australia Day as “un-Australian,” the irony is palpable, especially when it has only been a public holiday across the country since 1994. Thirty years pales into comparison with 65,000.