Why Australia still celebrates the day colonialists arrived

Australia Day embraces the sadness and pain inflicted upon the nation state’s Aboriginals

Australia is united in support of the announcement our government has acquired copyright to the Australian Aboriginal flag so it can be used freely by all. Since it was first used in a demonstration in 1971, it has grown to become a symbol of indigenous unity and pride. This announcement comes in the week we celebrate Australia Day and is fitting of the new and multifaceted nation we have become.

Of course our journey has not been smooth sailing. On January 26th, 1788, Arthur Phillip arrived at what is now Sydney Cove, Australia, and raised the national flag of the United Kingdom. In doing so, he founded the British colony of New South Wales and, at the same time, commenced the dispossession and marginalisation of Indigenous people who had occupied the land for at least 60,000 years. This is now a sad and undisputed reality which took much too long for the Australian people to acknowledge and apologise for. During this time, many Indigenous people were removed from their traditional lands and stopped from practising their language and culture by the burgeoning administration. This is an enduring hurt that still has consequences in modern Australia today.

It is understandable therefore why some in Ireland might wonder why our annual national celebration of Australia Day marks this occasion.

When considering this question, it is important to recognise what we are celebrating and why. Though not everything is perfect in contemporary Australia, Australia ranks as one of the best countries to live in the world by international comparisons of wealth, education, health and quality of life. This is something we are and will continue to be proud of. As well as these very tangible measurements, Australia legalised same-sex marriage in 2017 and continues to be one of the most multicultural societies in the world.

Diverse democracy

Australians carry our weight and more in the great challenges of the world. We will meet and exceed our Paris Climate Targets for example, and we strongly support the net zero emissions by 2050 pledge made at Cop26. More recently we have supported – and will continue to – our Pacific neighbours in their ongoing response to Covid-19 by helping in the logistical distribution and donation of vaccines.

Australia ranks as one of the best countries to live by comparisons of wealth, education, health and quality of life

These are achievements of our modern, strong and diverse democracy and that is what we celebrate on January 26th. There is simply no way to deny that the story of modern Australia – its rule of law, equality of the sexes, scientific curiosity, technological progress, responsible government plus the constant self-criticism that makes us conscious of our collective failings towards Aboriginal people – started from this date. For in all walks of life, one’s response to adversity demonstrates the content of one’s character and while we look back with deep regret, we must also look forward.

President Michael D Higgins understood this concept intrinsically when he made an historic apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia in 2017 when he visited Perth. While recognising the hardship of Irish arrivals to the British colony, Mr Higgins said, “If we are to be truly unblinking in our gaze, we must acknowledge that while most Irish emigrants experienced some measure – often a large measure – of prejudice and injustice, there were some among the number who inflicted injustice too.”

A country’s national holiday is not designed therefore to reflect the values at the time of its origin, nor is it supposed to be an unfiltered celebration of everything that has ever happened within the state or been done by its people since that time.

Immeasurable suffering

St Patrick’s Day for example was introduced by the British government in 1903 after James O’ Meara MP brought it before the House of Commons. However, when Irish people take to the streets in 2022 to celebrate the day, thoughts will not be of 1903 and O’Meara, nor of 461AD and the death of the Welsh man, St Patrick. Their thoughts will not be of how women were treated in fifth-century Ireland, nor of how Ireland had yet to gain its independence from the United Kingdom in 1903. Instead, reflections will consider how its people have used their time and resources since then to build the modern republic we see today: a republic to be proud of and to be celebrated.

We pay our respects to them and their cultures, and to elders past, present and emerging

In Australia that is our desire as well. None of this is supposed to take away from the immeasurable suffering, but rather to recognise and understand better the traditional owners of the country throughout Australia, and their continuing connection to land, sea and community.

We pay our respects to them and their cultures, and to elders past, present and emerging by seeking a new and modern nation state that brings together all of its people into a single, shared vision. Nations are like people – we all go through a personal growth journey and reconciling who we were with who we are is part of a journey. It’s a journey to who we want to be. So Australia is on a difficult journey on a pathway of our making: it’s a journey of growth.

Our past contains sadness and pain, we must own that and we will grow. This is modern Australia and January 26th, 1788, was the moment where the journey to our modern Australia began. Happy Australia Day.

Gary Gray is Australian ambassador to Ireland