Creation of Australia Day is based on a lie

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Protesters march onto Parliament House from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on Australia Day. Photo: Mike Welsh

In this opinion piece, senior digital reporter ANDREW MATHIESON writes that the creation of Australia Day on January 26 was, for all intents and purposes, based on a lie.

MORE prophetic words could not be postulated regardless of which side of the debate Australians stand.

Australia Day should be the one day that truly unites the nation.

It is now anything but.

Protests across the land including a poignant march to the front of Parliament House yesterday (January 26) where Aboriginal elders spoke about how the public holiday is day of mourning for indigenous people left more Australians in no doubt of the divide.

The ACT Greens that forms the territory’s coalition government with Labor marks January 26 as a “Day of Mourning” and have threatened not to recognise Australia Day celebrations.

It’s not that a better day can’t be found, but no worse date could have been chosen either.

It can be mystifying how non-indigenous Australians who historically and psychologically are unaffected by early massacres of Aboriginal people and the consequential Frontier Wars that was hidden from 20th century textbooks would strongly object to changing the date of Australia Day, should there still be another national day to commemorate both the modern nation-state and the continent that homed the oldest continuous living culture in the world.

After all, the date is more about a celebration for NSW, 112 years and 340 days before Australia united as one.

For those of us old enough to remember the Bicentenary in 1988, it was the first time Australia Day was a big deal.

The fervour that raged when the tall ships re-enacting the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour, 200 years since January 26, 1788 was matched by Aboriginal protests down the road around Sydney Cove.

How indignant they must have felt to watch millions of white Australians, joyously celebrate the day indigenous Australians lost everything they once had for 65,000 years.

There lies the argument.

Of all days to celebrate what is good about this country, why the one day when British colonialists declared the land in name of the king?

King George III, at the time, was by some accounts in history considered quite mad.

Mad with a mental illness, but also mad over the British loss of the American colonies – and he wanted the island we call Australia by whatever means necessary.

About a week earlier than January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Botany Bay but after deciding the land was unsuitable, the 11 tall ships upped and sailed to Port Jackson to what is today Sydney Harbour.

Back in 1770, Captain James Cook navigated the eastern coastline of the land, claimed it for England under the doctrine terra nullius, the Latin phrase for “nobody’s land”.

Cook had told authorities of contact with indigenous groups – so how could he claim the land was terra nullius? Because under 18th century European international law that was one way to claim a foreign territory.

The creation of Australia Day on January 26 was, for all intents and purposes, based on a lie.

In fact, for many years of modern Australia’s history, January 26 was something specific to NSW – not the rest of Australia – celebrating the colony’s emergence under the names Anniversary Day, Foundation Day and First Landing Day at one time or another.

It took until 1935 for all states except Tasmania to recognise the day and 1994 for it to become a national public holiday.

During 1915 through until 1918 during the war effort, Australia Day was commemorated on four different dates in July.

An obvious national day would link back to the 1901 declaration of Australian Federation.

That happened to be January 1 when the six former British self-governing colonies that were loosely referred to Australia surrendered some of their powers for the greater good.

The following year on its first anniversary the date was named Commonwealth Day, but it failed to garnish much support on New Year’s Day.

Another popular alternative is December 3 when citizens rose up against the colonial government in Victoria during the iconic Eureka Stockade uprising on Ballarat’s minefields.

This date was was proposed as a national day even as far back as the 1880s by the pro-republican The Bulletin publication.

These two dates are a turning point in nationhood, no doubt – but don’t address the continent’s history before 1788.

May 27 would be a controversial change, as the date of the 1967 anniversary of the referendum to recognise indigenous people as, one, Australians and, two, their right to vote.

More than 50 years ago when communities attitudes were different, more than 90 per cent of the non-indigenous population were in favour of this recognition.

But maybe the easiest compromise is the one standing in plain sight.

Consider one day earlier – January 25.

The symbolism behind the last day on the continent that the indigenous population was officially occupied could be a unifying moment for all Australians – not just some of us.

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