‘Australia Day’ boycott gathers steam in call for date change
January 26th’s ‘defining moment’ seen as airbrushing Aboriginals out of Oz history
Australians celebrate Australia Day in Sydney on January 26th, 2016. Photograph: Steve Christo/Corbis via Getty Images
Australia Day on January 26th occupies a conflicted place in Australian society. For children, it marks the end of their summer holidays with fireworks. For many adults it can also mean the end of their break (it is not unusual for workers to take most of January off work).
For a great many Aboriginals, however, there is nothing to celebrate; to them, January 26th is “invasion day”.
For a day that is becoming increasingly divisive, most people seem to have little idea of why January 26th was chosen. Many assume it commemorates Lieut James Cook’s 1770 landing at Botany Bay aboard HMS Endeavour, but that happened on April 29th. Some think it marks the day in 1901 when Australia became independent from Britain, but that was January 1st.
The real reason, explained then prime minister Tony Abbott in 2014, is: “On the 26th of January, 1788, governor [Arthur] Phillip raised the union flag at Sydney Cove, drank to the king’s health and success to the settlement.”
Abbott also said it was the defining moment in Australian history, adding, in case people mistook his intention, “Let me repeat that: it was the defining moment in the history of this continent.”
Warren Mundine, who at the time was advising Abbott on indigenous issues, condemned the comments. “Well, it was a defining moment, there’s no argument about that,” he said. “It was also a disastrous defining moment for indigenous people.”
Change the date
Nearly three years on from Abbott’s strident words, the push to change the date is finally gathering some steam from disparate quarters – a new campaign organisation, an Aboriginal hip-hop group and a Western Australia council.
The Change the Date campaign is calling on the public to boycott Australia Day, saying there is no point aiming the campaign at politicians, as they are not listening.
“Don’t celebrate dispossession,” the campaign says. “Don’t celebrate a day that continues the hurt of our first peoples. Don’t play the concerts. Don’t take your kids to the festivities. We need a new Australia Day for all Australians. Saying no to this one is the only way we’ll get it.”
Hip-hop group AB Original, with guest singer Dan Sultan (who has both Aboriginal and Irish heritage), have a song called January 26 on their new album, Reclaim Australia. Amid some strong language, Sultan sings, “You can call it what you want, but it just don’t mean a thing/ You can come and wave your flag, it don’t mean a thing to me.”
The song goes on to say the country should not celebrate “a day made on misery” and that any day other than January 26th would do for Australia Day.
In Western Australia, Fremantle City Council decided to cancel its usual fireworks display on January 26th and move its traditional Australia Day events to January 28th because of cultural sensitivities.
Truly inclusive day
“We thought it was time to acknowledge it wasn’t a day of celebration for everybody and it was an opportunity for us to come up with a different format on a different day that could be truly inclusive,” mayor Brad Pettit told the West Australian newspaper.
However, the conservative federal government has intervened to block Fremantle from moving the traditional Australia Day citizenship ceremony to the 28th.
The assistant immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said hundreds of councils hold these ceremonies on the 26th and it is important “that they don’t get the idea they can use citizenship as a political football. We’re very dark on that.”
Hawke might well be dark on that, but the movement to move Australia Day is out in the light and won’t be slinking back to the shade.