Should We Celebrate Australia Day?
As debate rages over Australia Day’s date, activists are questioning whether we should celebrate the event at all.
Australian public youth radio station Triple J recently sparked controversy with their recent decision to move the date of their annual Hottest 100 countdown, after a poll of their listeners found that a majority of listeners backed such a move.
Against such sentiment, a recent campaign launched by Mark Latham and Alice Springs town Councillor Jacinta Price aims to keep the current date intact. Price, herself an Indigenous person, has suggested that not all Indigenous Australians feel impacted by past misdeeds.
“We’ve got to stop painting each other with the same brush … not all white people are racists and not all Aboriginal people are feeling like they are victims of our country’s history,” Cr Price said.
The debate over whether or not Australia Day should change has been accompanied by recent boycotts of Australia Day celebrations, including by local councils. In Melbourne, Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) are planning a protest march on 26 January. Yigar Gunditjmara and Bindal woman Tarneen Onus-Williams told The Australian that “Celebrating a great country — Australia — has come at a loss for so many people, especially Aboriginal people.”
Australian tennis legend Pat Cash is a prominent Australian who has said he cannot celebrate Australia Day, after working in Indigenous communities.
Cash, who has lived in the United States for years, said that seeing the poverty Indigenous communities were living in had served as a catalyst for change.
“I’ve got to say I was embarrassed to be Australian, I was shocked. It was mindblowing. I was in tears half the time seeing the poverty and the situation these people are in.”
“That is not going to be a celebration for me, it’s like an Invasion Day, celebrating white England — English landing.
“As you can see it has changed my life. Seeing what has gone on up there.”
Cash has worked with the Indigenous charity Children’s Landing, which seeks to empower Indigenous Australian elders.
Ben Silverstein, who teaches Indigenous histories at Sydney University, told AAP that Aboriginal opinion on Australia Day is varied. He suggested, however, that opposition to the day had a long history.
“Victorian Aboriginal activist William Cooper wrote in 1938 that the memorial of the coming of the whites is a memorial of death to Aboriginal people,” Dr Silverstein said.
“To commemorate that day is to commemorate invasion and Indigenous death.”
Is Changing The Date Tokenism?
Some activists have suggested that shifting the date of Australia Day runs the risk of being an empty, tokenistic gesture. Luke Pearson writes on the Indigenous X blog that moving the date for Australia Day would not absolve Australia from misdeeds committed against Indigenous Australians.
“Changing the date of Australia Day is a bit like joining a gym. Doing it won’t make you lose weight, gain muscles, or get fitter in any way whatsoever. It is simply an indication that you actually want to achieve those things. It provides an opportunity for you to follow through on that intention. You still have to actually go to the gym at some point though, and probably eat healthier – like, you have to disrupt your own personal status quo, which is all those damaging habits that you always knew were bad for you but shied away from addressing for so long.”
“And when it comes to racial discrimination and embracing Indigenous cultures and multiculturalism more broadly, Australia is in pretty bad shape.”
“Australia still has to recognise that we have a long, long way to go actually addressing the issue of eliminating racial discrimination in this country. We can’t use changing the date of Australia to pretend we have fixed racism and then throw a party to celebrate how harmonious we are.”
Warren Mundine, who supports changing the date, has said that there are more pressing concerns for Indigenous Australians, including unemployment and health and education outcomes.
Australia Day has been officially on 26 January as a National Day since 1994. The date commemorates the declaration of British sovereignty over the east coast of Australia in 1788.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor