You probably already know that 26th January each year is considered a public holiday nationally across Australia, and it’s a time when many people get together to celebrate the place we’re all so lucky to call home.
But what’s this day all about, and what do you need to know about how and why we celebrate it?
What is Australia Day?
The marking of 26th January as Australia Day is seen as an important date by many in Australia’s history. However, the reasons we celebrate this day have changed over time.
It started as a celebration for emancipated convicts and evolved into a celebration of Australian culture and community and a reflection of the diverse individuals who call Australia home.
Why Do We Celebrate It?
At its heart, Australia Day is a chance for everyone to get together and take some time to reflect on what home means to them. It’s an opportunity to consider what we’re grateful for about this great country and spend time with friends, family, and community, acknowledging our diversity and celebrating the wealth of individuals we get to share our home with.
A Brief History of Australia Day
The following timeline of Australia Day was compiled by Historian Dr Elizabeth Kwan and gives a great overview of how this day has come to be acknowledged so widely:
- Pre-1770s: Aboriginal peoples lived for more than 60,000 years on the continent now known as Australia. At least 1600 generations of these peoples had lived and died here.
- 1770: On 22nd August, Captain James Cook raised the Union Jack on what is now called Possession Island and claimed the eastern half of the continent as New South Wales for Great Britain.
- 1788: On 26th January, Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain, arrived at Sydney Cove and raised the Union Jack, signalling the beginning of the colony.
- 1804: Early calendars and newspapers began referring to 26th January as First Landing Day or Foundation Day.
- 1818: Governor Macquarie acknowledged the day officially as a public holiday. The previous year he accepted Captain Matthew Flinders, circumnavigator of the continent, recommendation of naming the country Australia.
- 1888: Representatives from Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and New Zealand joined NSW leaders in Sydney to celebrate the Centenary.
- 1930: The Australian Natives Association in Victoria started to campaign for 26th January to celebrate Australia Day on a Monday, creating a long weekend. The Victorian government agreed with the proposal in 1931, the other states and territories following by 1935.
- 1938: On 26th January 1938, the 150th anniversary of Arthur Phillip’s arrival, Yorta Yorta man William Cooper and members of the Aboriginal Progressive Association held the Day of Mourning and Protest. The protest took place in Sydney after an event to celebrate Arthur Phillip’s landing. Over 1000 First Nations people and their supporters formed a silent march through the streets of Sydney.
- 1979: The Commonwealth government established a National Australia Day Committee in Canberra. In 1984 it became the National Australia Day Council, based in Sydney.
- 1988: The states and territories agreed to celebrate Australia Day on 26th January, rather than with a long weekend. Aborigines also renamed Australia Day to Invasion Day.
- 1994: Celebrating Australia Day on 26th January became officially established.
- Present Day: Australia Day is an established and significant day in the national calendar, with 4 in 5 Australians seeing it as ‘more than a day off’, according to AustraliaDay.org.
Why Do Some People Want to Change the Date?
As you may already know, Australia Day is complicated for a lot of people and in recent years, there have been more calls for the date we celebrate it to be changed.
From 1788 onwards, First Nations people suffered massacres, land theft, stolen children, and oppression due to colonisation. The celebration of 26th January has long been difficult for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who see it as a day of sorrow and mourning rather than a celebration.
For this reason, Australia Day celebrations are not generally embraced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and many non-Indigenous people too. For many, this day is instead recognised as Survival Day or Invasion Day.
While many Australians have some idea about the devastating history of colonisation in Australia, fewer people are aware of the impact of colonialism, and colonisation still exists today. It’s one of the many reasons celebrating Australia Day on 26th January is seen as problematic.
It’s really important to know that people who want to change the date do want to celebrate Australia, the diversity of the people who call it home and everything wonderful about this country. They just don’t want to celebrate it on a day that, for many, is a significantly painful reminder of what First Nations people have suffered.
Yawuru Lawyer Mick Dodson AM has said he believes that someday, Australia will change the date to a “comprehensive and inclusive date for all Australians.”
Where You Can Find Out More
Whether you choose to acknowledge and celebrate Australia Day on the 26th or not, it is always important to educate and learn more about the history and culture of the land you call home and listen to your community’s needs.
There are some great resources and organisations that can help you learn more about Australia Day, why we celebrate it, and the reasons behind why many want to change the date.
Here are a few to help get you started:
Remember, no matter your stance, Australia Day is a chance to reflect, embrace community and celebrate our home. Always be respectful of others and their opinions, stay safe and be kind.