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January 24, 2022

Australia Day: Celebrate or Change the Date?

Kristina Roach
 Australia Day: Celebrate or Change the Date?
At first light on January 26, Barangaroo – a waterfront precinct in the north-western edge of Sydney’s CBD – will shimmer in a blaze of colour and artistry.

A morning ceremony called WugualOra – meaning ‘one mob’ – will unfold across the Walumil Lawns, connecting performers and spectators to the world’s oldest living culture through dance, music, and language.

The WugulOra Morning Ceremony is a sacred and reflective ceremony honouring the Traditional Owners of Barangaroo, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. Guided by First Nations representatives, it is framed as a time for ‘inclusion, understanding and recognition.’

An ancient Smoking Ceremony will cleanse the way for new beginnings. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers and singers, including the Koomurri Aboriginal Dance Troupe, will perform to a breathless and enthusiastic crowd. The national anthem will be sung in English and Eora, the local Aboriginal language.

Those gathered will stand as one to commemorate the past, celebrate the present, and look toward a glittering future for all Australians. January 26 is ‘Australia Day’, after all: our country’s national day to acknowledge Australia’s sense of community, resilience, and spirit.

In the flush of the morning, the flurry of movement and festivity will feel electric, unifying. This will be a vibrant community event embracing Australia’s robust history and diverse culture.

But January 26 is not really a day of unity or celebration – not for everyone.  And as the mid-morning sun grows hotter and the crowd peels away to eat at trendy breakfast bars, kick a footy at the local oval, or join their mates for a picnic lunch, many more Australians will be getting ready to rally against this day – the day they call Invasion Day.

The Australia Day public holiday is one of deep divides. On the one hand, most of us get to enjoy a day off work just as we were regretting going back after the New Year break. On the other, it’s a day of mourning, trauma, and crippling despair.

For many non-Indigenous Australians (this writer included), it brings about mixed feelings. A bonus holiday is great, sure, but the joy of tuning out from emails and endless Zoom calls is quickly overshadowed by an uneasy reality: this ‘holiday’ marks the beginning of a long and painful colonisation of our country’s First Peoples. 

For some, this isn’t what Australia Day is about at all. It’s a time for snags and flags and smiles. To get around the barbecue, crack a beer, and talk about how good ‘Straya is.

For shift workers, the day, as with most public holidays, rolls along like any other.

But for Australia’s First Nations peoples, January 26 signals the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay and the start of European colonisation in Australia. It represents loss of sovereign rights to their land. Loss of culture. Loss of family. Loss of freedom.

Last year, Casper Magazine asked what we're even celebrating on Australia Day. This year, we’re wondering why it’s still honoured on January 26 at all.

Australia Day has not always been celebrated on this date. It was first acknowledged on July 30 in 1915. By January 26, 1935, all Australian states and territories were celebrating the national day on the same date, but it still wasn’t widely known as ‘Australia Day’.

In fact, it wasn’t until January 26, 1994 that ‘Australia Day’ become a national public holiday at all. In the years since, the public cry to #ChangeTheDate has swelled to almost half the population. Thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians march together in protest each year. Start-ups and small businesses boycott the day entirely, asking their staff to carry on working as a show of support and outrage.

Still, the ‘change the date debate’ has been a thorny one. The Federal Government is not supportive, with the Minister of Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, stating in 2021 that Australia Day is an opportunity to reflect and ‘stand as Australians, one and free’.

Every year around mid-January, the movement is questioned on morning TV (usually by non-Indigenous hosts) and in the daily tabloids, labelled everything from ‘symbolic’ to ‘tokenistic’.

And perhaps it is tokenism, but it is also something that the Federal Government can enact now.

So, if we were to change the date, when would make the most sense? There are calls for January 1 (honouring the date of Australia’s Federation in 1901), or May 26 (National Sorry Day), or even May 8 (‘mate’, get it?).

The specific date itself is not of huge significance, but finding a day that the whole country can feel good about definitely is.

Because most of us – whether our family has been here for 5 years, 50 years, or over 50,000 years – just want a day to celebrate the place we call home.

The WugulOra Morning Ceremony will be broadcast live from 7:30am AEDT on Wednesday January 26 on ABC and ABC iView.

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