Is Australia Day approaching a tipping point?
The Australian Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australian office. Register to receive it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter at the Australian desk.
On Thursday – Australia’s national holiday, known as Australia Day – my local cafe in Melbourne was packed. But as they sipped coffees and downed breakfast burritos, many of the mostly young, mostly white customers made their feelings about the day known via their choice of clothing: the same T red, black and yellow t-shirt, with the slogan “Always has been, always will be.
The full phrase – ‘always was, always will be Aboriginal land’ – is an iconic rallying cry for the Australian indigenous land rights movement. This refers to how Indigenous lands were never ceded to European colonizing forces; how Indigenous Australians continue to face dispossession, structural inequality and marginalization; and how First Nations Australians retain a deep connection to the lands taken from them.
The ideas that the slogan represents are particularly pressing on January 26. The date has been commemorated nationally as Australia’s National Day since 1994 and marks the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788, when around 1,400 people, half of them convicts, arrived from Brittany.
These arrivals would begin a two-century process of the total transformation of Australia, beginning with the raising of a flag over a land the British described as “Terra Nullius”, or no one’s land.
For many Aboriginal Australians, January 26 is a day of sadness and is known as ‘Survival Day’ or ‘Invasion Day’. It is seen as the symbolic beginning of a state program of theft, slaughter, imprisonment and forced assimilation. As early as 1938, Aboriginal leaders called for January 26 to be recognized as a “national day of mourning”, commemorating “the capture of our country by the white man”.
Increasingly, many non-Indigenous Australians agree. Although a majority of Australians believe Australia Day should remain on January 26 – a recent poll suggests around 60% are happy with the date as it is – that number is falling. Twenty years ago, it was closer to 80%. And among those under 35, a clear majority think the country should not celebrate Australia Day on January 26.
Some have suggested changing the public holiday to another date, such as January 1 (the date Australia was federated), the fourth Friday in January (because that would make a good long weekend) or the 8 May (because the abbreviation M8 sounds like “mate”).
Some state governments, as well as many large Australian companies, have given staff the option of working on January 26 and instead taking another day off, so as not to observe the holiday at all. And even those less inclined to radical action, such as senior executives in white-collar companies, have expressed ambivalence about the date.
Andy Penn, the former chief executive of Telstra, Australia’s biggest telecommunications company, said he would not choose to work over the holidays and called on other business leaders to speak up. “I think CEOs can see things in society where there needs to be change, and advocate for that change, even if not everyone agrees,” he told The newspaper. Age.
In a lengthy LinkedIn post, Adam Powick, managing director of Deloitte Australia, acknowledged “the shadow cast over our national day”. The question of whether one should take a day off, he wrote, “well reflects the discord and division that has come to symbolize our national holiday.”
This year’s Australia Day came amid an increasingly contentious national conversation over an upcoming referendum on the creation of an Indigenous advisory body to work with the government on Indigenous issues.
While some would simply change the date, others argue that Australia’s public holiday should be abolished altogether. On Thursday, Invasion Day protests took place in major cities across the country. At a rally, held in Melbourne, Lidia Thorpe, a Green Party senator and an Aboriginal woman, described race relations between white and indigenous Australians as a “war”.
“They keep killing us. They keep killing our babies,” she said. “What do we have to celebrate in our country?”
Here are the stories of the week.