January 26 is a date that evokes mixed feelings in Australia. For some, it’s a day to celebrate all the good things about life in Australia. For others, it is a painful reminder of the beginnings of British colonization and the expropriation of First Nations.
January 26 is increasingly becoming a date that divides the nation, even as it tries to unify it. Some municipalities stopped holding citizenship ceremonies on that date. In 2018, Triple J stopped hosting the Hottest 100 on Australia Day, and this year Victoria announced it will no longer hold its Australia Day parade.
An essential poll this week suggests around a quarter of Australians now favor January 26 as a day to recognize First Nations people with a national holiday on a separate day.
Those defending the status quo often appeal to tradition, but it is important to recognize that Australia Day is not always celebrated on January 26 and the significance of the date has long been disputed.
When did Australia Day start?
In the early 1800s, January 26 was a celebration in Sydney known as “Foundation Day”. These were initially informal gatherings and celebrations, but in 1838 it was declared a public holiday to mark the 50th anniversary of the colony. When the other colonies were founded, they celebrated their own foundation instead of January 26.
The Federation debates of the 1880s and 1890s argued for a single national holiday. But some objected to January 26 because it was aimed at New South Wales. Nevertheless, by the centenary of the British arrival in 1888, all colonies except South Australia celebrated the day.
However, even after Federation in 1901, the primary national holiday was not January 26, but “Empire Day”, celebrated on May 24. The choice of date (the birthday of the late Queen Victoria) and the form of celebrations were more imperialistic than nationalistic in taste.
Australia Day was not created until 1915 as a fundraising campaign for the First World War. The first Australia Day, held on July 30, was directly shaped by the experience of the Gallipoli landing. It continued to be held in July for the rest of the war.
In 1935, the states all agreed to use the name Australia Day and celebrate it on January 26. But it was a decision that sparked controversy and outcry. The 150th anniversary in 1938 was celebrated nationally, but First Nations also declared the date a “day of mourning”.
Likewise, the bicentenary of 1988 epitomized the disputed significance of January 26. It saw both parties – the largest party in Australia’s history and the largest protest since the Vietnam moratorium.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Australia Day became a public holiday in every state and territory.
What are we celebrating?
Technically January 26 does not mark the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia. The first ships left England on 13 May 1787 and arrived at Botany Bay on 18 January, but Arthur Phillip decided it was not a suitable location. On January 26, the British flag was raised at Sydney Cove.
Throughout the 19th century, January 26 was a celebration of being British, held by people who largely identified as Australian Britons. As Australian national identity evolved in the mid-20th century, the narrative surrounding Australia Day became more exclusively nationalistic. Civic rituals such as the Australian of the Year (first awarded in 1960) helped give January 26 a national focus.
Today Australia Day is presented as a day to “celebrate our nation”. But for many First Nations people and their allies, it is considered “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day”.
If not January 26, when?
Most countries observe their national holiday on the date they gained independence. It’s a quirk of Australian history that the date the British flag was hoisted has assumed this role, but it shows how malleable national symbols can be.
If the date of Australia Day were to change, there is no clear alternative, although some argue that if Australia becomes a republic that should be the new date. A pragmatic alternative is simply to keep Australia Day on the last Friday in January. A more humorous suggestion is May 8, which is pronounced with a broad Australian accent and sounds like the word “mate”.
Historical suggestions are the anniversary of the Eureka stockade (December 3), the Mabo judgment (June 3) or the passage of the Australia Acts (March 3).
Read more: For an Indigenous perspective on ‘Australia Day’, here’s a quick guide to First Nations media platforms
For all their wisdom, it could be argued that the Constitution writers did Australia a disservice by submitting the Commonwealth Form on January 1, 1901. If it had been almost any other day of the year, the legal incorporation of Australia would have been the obvious choice for a national holiday.
Emotional as the subject is, Australians should be free to debate what January 26 means and whether it should remain the national holiday. After all, the ability to openly discuss difficult issues without fear is one of the many freedoms Australia Day is supposed to celebrate.