Dubbo Photo News & Dubbo Weekender

January 26 – the date of no meaning

AUSTRALIA DAY is upon us again, and so is the now inevitable uproar in the press and on social media about the date of Australia Day.

The mere hint of changing from January 26 is met with social media outrage and accusations of being Un-Australian. A mention of the suffering and injustice this date represents to Aboriginal Australians is met with both outright hostility and a command to ‘just get over it’.

This was experienced by presenter Brooke Boney on Channel 9 last week after she neatly pointed out the differences between the lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-indigenous Australians.

Just the week before, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the Federal Government will force local councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day as part of a directive to cement January 26 as our national day and enforce a correct type of patriotism to honour the ‘founding’ of Australia.

It is very easy to pull apart this Morrison proposal as mindless jingoism. Who does he think this proposal appeals too? How will non-conforming Councils be punished? Councils have citizenship ceremonies throughout the year, so will an incoming Federal Government honour these rules after the upcoming election?

Not so easy is the significance of January 26 in the first place.

After arriving in Botany Bay between the 18th and 20th of January and realising Botany Bay was an unsuitable sight for a penal colony, Arthur Phillip and a few officers travelled from Botany Bay and landed in Sydney Cove on January 21. They returned to Botany Bay on the 23rd of January and the fleet was ordered to move to Sydney Cove. The proposed 25th of January landing of the Fleet in Sydney Cove was delayed a day until January 26, 1788, due to a severe storm. Sovereignty of ‘New Holland’ was declared on January 26 and the formal establishment of the colony of New South Wales in the name of King George III took place on February 7.

So, whilst the 26th was the date New Holland was declared a sovereign possession of England, the First Fleet had been on Australian soil days earlier, and the formal declaration of the colony was nearly a fortnight later – and that declaration was only of the Colony of New South Wales. James Cook and his expedition had set foot in Botany Bay 18 years earlier on April 29, 1770.

Moving through the following centuries, prior to 1888, ‘Anniversary Day’ was celebrated by NSW on January 26 (not on the actual 7th of February proclamation date). Other states held proclamation or foundation day celebrations on the anniversary of each states’ establishment.

The first official national Australia Day was a fundraising event for World War I on July 30, 1915. The following year the event was on the 28th of July. By 1935 all the states and territories had celebrations called variously either Australia Day, Foundation Day or Anniversary Day on January 26.

The first official ‘Day of Mourning’ was held by the Australian Natives Association in 1938.

In 1946 the Federal and State governments (not the Territories) agreed Australia Day should be celebrated on January 26, and the public holiday should be on the closest Monday. Australia Day was declared a public holiday (on the closest Monday of course) for all states and territories in 1994.

From this short history, I ask the question – what day are we being told to celebrate?

Are we celebrating the date of the second attempt to land in Sydney Cove and the raising of the British flag? From a colonisation point of view, why is the 26th of January more significant than the date James Cook landed in 1770, or the 18th of January when the First Fleet set foot in Botany Bay?

If the day is to be about the foundation of our nation, what about the 1st of January being Australia Day, to celebrate the day the Australian colonies came together, and the Australian constitution came into being in 1901? But of course, January 1 is already a public holiday, and Australians will never give up an extra public holiday if one is on offer.

The public holiday on the closest Monday to January 26, if it falls on a weekend, bears that out.

We are so set on the date of the 26th being the date our foundation should be celebrated, yet flexible enough for the date of the following Monday to be the national holiday from work. (Same goes for the Queen’s Birthday public holiday, which has no correlation to her actual birthday on April 21, but is in June because it more neatly fits in the calendar and even Republicans want another day off.)

The celebration of the founding of Australia on any day linked to the landing of white man is obviously anathema to Aboriginal Australians. The landing of our English forebears set off a chain of events that decimated and dispossessed the indigenous peoples; and understandably they equate Australia Day with ‘white pride in genocide’ and ‘Invasion Day’.

Australia Day is touted as the day of uniting Australians but clinging to the divisive and meaningless date of January 26 has the opposite result.

Surely it is time we matured as a nation and outgrew the colonial mentality.

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.