24 January 2020

What does Australia Day mean to you?

| Rebecca Vassarotti MLA
Join the conversation
Australian flag and Aboriginal flag

As Australians, we have a long way to go and much to do to achieve the practical outcomes of equality and opportunity. Photo: File.

Each year as Australia Day approaches, I find myself feeling more and more uneasy about the celebration of the holiday on 26 January.

This view is shared by a significant group in the community and has seen some momentum building around changing the date, particularly given the reality that the celebration of Australia Day on 26 January is a relatively recent thing – with all states and territories only recognising this public holiday from 1994.

The official website says that Australia Day is a time to celebrate all the things we love about Australia: “land, a sense of fair go, lifestyle, democracy, the freedoms we enjoy but particularly our people.”

However, given we choose to celebrate this on the anniversary of an event that had such devastating impacts for our First Nations people, this is very challenging.

We cannot shy away from the truth that this is the date on which England proclaimed Australia Terra Nullius and claimed it as its dominion. This act began the dispossession, the oppression and the denial of rights for Australia’s First Nations peoples.

Each Australia Day, I reflect on the things that I love about the nation of my birth and where I have spent most of my life. I also imagine what more we can do to ensure there is fairness, equality and opportunity for all Australians. It is impossible to do this without reflecting on how far we need to go on our journey of reconciliation with our First Nation’s people.

We know that true reconciliation is based on truth-telling, recognition and justice. Yet here in Australia, we are still stuck on fundamental issues such as recognition and reconciliation.

While the Uluru Statement from the Heart was quickly dismissed by many political leaders, it provides a powerful framework for moving forward in a united way, to build a future for all Australia that is based on truth-telling, recognition and reform of the structures that create the disadvantage faced by Australia’s First Nations people.

There is work happening to progress the reconciliation journey, particularly around recognition.

Here in Canberra, the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body, first established in 2008, continues to be one way to provide a democratically elected voice to Government. Last year, a historic first tri-partisan-sponsored bill means that each Legislative Assembly sitting day will start with a formal introduction of Ngunnawal language – a language that some elders were warned not to use due to fears of discrimination or being removed from families.

However, we also know we have a long way to go and much to do to achieve the practical outcomes of equality and opportunity. The experience of other reconciliation processes has shown us that reconciliation will not be achieved without acknowledgment of past wrongs, forgiveness, healing, reparation and a joint commitment to create a more equal future.

For different reasons, primarily the ongoing bushfire crisis, Australia Day in Canberra will be a relatively low key affair. There will be a morning event, and some great things to celebrate, including recognising this year’s ACT Australian of the Year Katrina Fanning, an amazing role model for all Canberrans at the national awards celebration. She will be joined by other inspiring Canberra citizens involved in the Awards. However, this is a public holiday that will continue to be challenging for many.

In his famous Redfern speech, Paul Keating said: “there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians.”

Independent of the date on which we commemorate Australia Day, until we recognise this and walk together to achieve it, for me it will be a muted celebration.

Do you think the way we commemorate Australia Day is changing?

Rebecca is an ACT Greens Candidate for the seat of Kurrajong in the 2020 Territory Election.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

“particularly given the reality that the celebration of Australia Day on 26 January is a relatively recent thing – with all states and territories only recognising this public holiday from 1994.”

I wish people would stop spreading mis truths and lies about the history of Australia Day. The only thing that happened in 1994 is every state agreed to celebrate the public holiday on the actual date rather than the closest Monday to it. It had been a public holiday Australia wide for 50 years before that and the event it represents widely celebrated from the early 1800’s.

It’s not a relatively new thing.

HiddenDragon9:14 pm 24 Jan 20

Another vote for sticking with 26 January – at least until we become a republic (probably some time in the reign of Charles III would be my guess) – assuming, of course, that said republic is not proclaimed on 26 January.

In the meantime, 26 January probably better serves the purposes of reconciliation campaigners. Alternative dates would still be open to attack on the grounds that they derived, one way or another, from conquest and dispossession, but 26 January has more rhetorical potency – not least because so many seem to think it commemorates James Cook (somewhat stronger name recognition than Arthur Phillip).

What about 1st Jan. Celebrate when Australia came into being when the colony became a federation.

Nah won’t work that’s already a public holiday and that what most people really care for.

Capital Retro11:42 am 26 Jan 20

Retired and unemployed people don’t get public holidays, JC.

Hidden Dragon,

Good point, there’s really no other date of relevance that wouldn’t be attacked for the same reason as 26th January.

For the people who call Australia Day “invasion day”, how does the formalisation of the federation of Australia as a unified nation on Jan 1 not represent the exact same thing?

Plus as you say, it’s already a public holiday and no one would support it.

Capital Retro7:14 pm 24 Jan 20

It’s a bad day for vandal climate change deniers like me because I’ll be at a neighbourhood BBQ being abused by chardonnay sippers demanding climate change action while chanting “the science is settled” or “we agree to disagree” while they refuse to debate it and when they start bragging about their latest (carbon excessive) cruise or European jet holday I wll be physically ejected when I remind them what hypocrites they are. Someone’s gotta do it.

Every time Australia Day is approaching, I find myself having a growing unease about the expected flood of articles like this attempting to attack Australia day and lessen it’s importance.

” given the reality that the celebration of Australia Day on 26 January is a relatively recent thing – with all states and territories only recognising this public holiday from 1994.”

Particularly when people use blatant mistruths to do so.

Australia Day has been a nation wide public holiday since 1935, it was just held on the Monday closest to the 26th January until it was unified on the actual date in 1994.

The date itself has been celebrated since the early 1800’s, the idea that it’s a relatively new thing is blatantly false and the only people attempting to spin that narrative are either ignorant of history or lying.

Capital Retro10:17 am 24 Jan 20

Peter Mackay and spiral are both correct.

rationalobserver8:48 am 24 Jan 20

It used to be a time to come together and reflect on how lucky we all were.
It has been highjacked to become a time of division and discord. The antithesis of reconciliation.
In the future, I suspect it will become an annual reflection of how much my relationship with my country has deteriorated over my adult life.

All cultures have good and bad aspects.
Australia Day commemorates the event which ultimately led to the creation of our country. Without that event it is extremely unlikely there would be one country occupying this continent and we most likely would not be living under the same laws as we are now.

For those of us who are not indigenous or descended from convicts transported here, ask yourself why your family moved here? There are plenty of other places in the world with plentiful natural resources.

Most likely they moved here because of the free, just and equitable (none of those done perfectly but better than most other places) society that resulted from the event on that date.

Australia is a great nation. Not perfect but still great. The foundation for that greatness was laid on that date.

It seems to have become very fashionable in recent years to raise questions about our nation on Australia day, to use it as an opportunity for “Truth” and to shine a light on the unpleasant aspects of our culture and history.

All cultures have good and bad aspects. All cultures.
Presumably in the spirit of Truth, Reconciliation Day will be a suitable time for a similar article questioning Aboriginal Culture.

Or does Truth only go one way?

If the British hadn’t landed here I wonder what Rule of Law our original Australians would be living under nowadays. Sooner or later a colonial power would have landed on another “invasion day”.

Capital Retro7:02 pm 24 Jan 20

Indeed, it could be that we would be eating paella and drinking cerveza, fighting bulls and building Catholic churches on every plaza.

There would be no aborigines and therefore no reason for reconciliation.

The British were not perfect but I’m glad they got here first.

Your point is very valid, and the French or Russians are candidates.

However I think the people who are so vocal against Australia Day envisage a fantasy where no Colonial power arrived.

Australia Day doesn’t need to be on January 26th though does it? There’s nothing particularly sacred about that day.

Without that day we would not be here. This city would not be here. Sydney, Melbourne etc would not be here. Any settlements in their locations would not have those names. This nation would not be here.

People who just enjoyed their Christmas holidays and look forward to Easter owe that to that day as the British brought Christianity here.

Anyone who has had or is looking forward to Long Service Leave ultimately owes it to that day.

Our legal and political systems came from that day.

Even things like us driving on the left side of the road link back to that day.

It is the day that set in motion the events that led to the Australia that exists today.

And of course don’t kid yourself. The end game is not just to change that date. The end game is to remove any celebration of non-indigenous achievement on this continent.

To prevent that a line will need to be drawn at some point. We may as well draw it now.

By all means incorporate an element of recognition and sorrow into Australia Day. But leave the date.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.