Why Australia Day must no longer be on January 26

Australian Flag.
Australian Flag. John Gass

PEOPLE in NSW have been marking January 26 since the early 1800s to commemorate the anniversary of the first British landing. The other colonies celebrated their own founding dates.

It wasn't until 1935 that all Australian States and Territories accepted January 26 as Australia's national day and agreed to call it "Australia Day".

Marking January 26 had always been about commemorating British arrival. But over time it also became a day for the colonies to celebrate growing self-reliance and lessening dependency on Britain.

There's always been a tension between celebrating British arrival on the one hand and celebrating Australia's own identity and independence on the other.

In 1938, then Australian premiers gathered in Sydney to mark 150 years since the First Fleet's landing. That same day, Aboriginal leaders held a Day of Mourning and Protest to highlight the mistreatment of Aboriginal people and campaign for equal rights. 

Aboriginal activist John Patten, right, with William Ferguson, Jack Kinchela, Helen Grosvenor, Selina Patten.
Aboriginal activist John Patten, right, with William Ferguson, Jack Kinchela, Helen Grosvenor, Selina Patten. Aiatsis Hack Horner Collection

Jack Patten opened the Day of Mourning and Protest conference saying: "On this day the white people are rejoicing, but we, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia's 150th birthday. Our purpose in meeting today is to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines of this continent live.

This land belonged to our forefathers 150 years ago, but today we are pushed further and further into the background… We do not wish to be left behind in Australia's march to progress. We ask for full citizen rights."

The Conference passed the following resolution: "We, representing the Aborigines of Australia... hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years… we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community."

Indigenous people overwhelmingly feel anger, sadness and grief about the chain of events beginning on January, 26, 1788. That was when our ancestors began losing their lands and their ability to speak their languages, practice ceremony and live under their kinship systems. 

And we, their descendants, lost our birthright. That chain of events continued to bring hardship and loss for many decades. For as long as I can remember, indigenous people have referred to January 26 as "Invasion Day". More recently we've also used the term "Survival Day", to commemorate our achievements and survival of our nations against the odds.

Most indigenous people will never celebrate January 26. That doesn't mean indigenous people won't celebrate Australia. Quite the opposite. Remember Jack Patten's call in 1938 - to be raised to full citizen status; to not be left behind in Australia's march to progress.

Indigenous people in 1938 were longing for inclusion; they weren't shunning Australia but demanding full citizenship. We campaigned tirelessly to be recognised as fully Australian, to be truly part of this nation. And when we were in 1967 we celebrated.

The 26th of January is the wrong day to celebrate Australia Day.

Firstly, Australia wasn't founded on January, 26, 1788. It was founded on January, 1, 1901 when six British colonies united as a single nation under the Australian Constitution.

Before then, people living in those colonies were British subjects. For most of their history the other colonies/states didn't commemorate January 26 because it was a day of significance for NSW. They resisted embracing it as the national day, reluctant to signal NSW as the senior state.

Secondly, the tension between commemorating British conquest on the one hand and celebrating Australian identity and independence on the other isn't going away. This isn't a recent tension drummed up by Lefties. It's always been there, even before anyone cared about what indigenous people think.

HISTORY: Australia Day Ambassador Dr Sally Goold.
HISTORY: Australia Day Ambassador Dr Sally Goold. Warren Lynam

Now I know Australia loves its public holiday at the end of January. So declare the last Friday of January a public holiday and let the end of January continue to be part of our national routine for holidays, BBQs with friends and family, summer activities and fun. But it doesn't need to be on the 26th every year and it doesn't need to be Australia's national day.

Australia Day should be celebrated on January, 1, 1901. That's the proper day to celebrate Australia's independence, identity and nationhood because that's the day Australia came into being and it's a day everyone can unite behind.

All Australians, including indigenous Australians, should be able to celebrate our country, its achievements and unique identity. The sentiments expressed on Australia Day are good and they're sentiments most indigenous people share. But we can't celebrate unity on a day representing conflict and conquest.

I want Australia Day moved - not because I don't want to celebrate Australia; but because I do.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO chairs the Yaabubiin Institute for Disruptive Thinking

Topics:  editors picks general-seniors-news opinion

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