The changing nature of Australia Day

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January 26. For most countries, it’s just another day. For Australia, it is that time of the year when we celebrate everything that is great about our country. The majority of us throw a few snags on the barbie, have a beer, cool off with a swim in the pool or at the beach, get excited or frustrated about what song will top the Hottest 100 and end the day with colourful fireworks.

Our population increases with immigrants becoming Australian citizens and those of us that have made a positive contributon to our society are celebrated with national and community awards such as the Australian of the Year Award.

Despite the laidback, fun-loving atmosphere most people experience, some don’t see Australia Day in the same way. With Invasion Day protests gaining more of a focus and petitions to postpone celebrations such as the Fremantle fireworks and Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown, you might wonder if Australia Day will remain the same.

While contemporary celebrations are about relaxing and having fun in the hot Australian sun, historically January 26 marks the anniversary of Governor Arthur Phillip raising the British flag at Sydney Cove and the landing of the First Fleet in Port Jackson, New South Wales in 1788. As a result, some Indigenous groups consider Australia Day to be ‘Invasion Day’. Murdoch University lecturer Glen Stasiuk is a descendant of the Minang-Wadjari Nyungars in Western Australia’s South-West and believes January 26 is a strange date to celebrate the country as a whole.

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“Technically [the date] only recognises the colonisation of the east coast of Australia whereas Australia [as a whole] wasn’t federated until 1901,” he says. “I see it more as Survival Day, the survival of culture and its manifestation. We all know we have to move forward and culture has to manifest. I just don’t think [January 26] is the most appropriate date from a technical point of view.”

Stasiuk also acknowledges changing Australia Day to when Australia was federated would be difficult because January 1 is already used as the day to mark the new calendar year and recover from New Year celebrations. “That dilutes that particular celebration of the federation of Australia anyway,” he says. “It would be great to have a day that could incorporate everybody, particularly with our multicultural society because that is what Australia is now: those of colonial English descent, the Aboriginal Australians and those that have come to Australia from overseas.”

Multicultural Services Centre of WA executive director and Ethnic Communities Council of WA president Ramdas Sankaran says while Australia is a diverse country in terms of ethnicities and religion, there is a need to have a day that means something positive to a significant majority of the population, even if it means gaining independence from Britain.

“We live in a democracy and everybody has their own views,” he says. “There are processes that will enable us to reach a decision that will please the vast majority of us. I come from India and I actually celebrate two things on January 26: Australia Day and Republic Day celebrating India’s independence.

“Although Australia holds a practical and pragmatic perspective as an independent country, we are still tied to Britain and the Queen. When it comes to identifying yourself as an individual or as a citizen from a national perspective, there are many things to take into account and in most instances overseas it would be the independence of the country or its colonisation or becoming a republic.

“If Australia were to become a republic, I think most Australian citizens would enjoy celebrating the day the nation became a republic instead of its colonisation.”

For Australia Day WA chief executive officer Morgen Lewis Australia Day is a time for reflection and celebration. “I’d like to encourage people to recognise the truth of the past, reflect on its significance and have empathy for our first Australians who indeed have a sense of deep loss,” she says.

“I also want to encourage all Australians to feel proud of where we are as a nation. It’s important to celebrate our successes and everything this amazing country has to offer. I guess for me it’s don’t take any of it for granted.”

Despite its name, Australia Day WA’s work is not Australia Day-centric, according to Lewis. “Our purpose is to encourage pride and active contribution to the future of Australia as one together, not just on Australia Day but every day,” she says. “Our vision is for Australia to be the most socially and culturally inclusive country in the world where everyone feels a deep sense of belonging and desire to contribute.”

While the importance of recognition is prevalent amongst Australian citizens, the landscape of Australia Day celebrations seems to be gradually changing. In August, the Fremantle Council opted to cancel its annual firework celebrations on the grounds of cultural sensitivity. Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt announced the fireworks would be replaced by a family day taking place on January 28, 2017 as an interim measure.

“There will be a concert with some major performers coming down to Fremantle, lots of multicultural celebrations because we see Australia Day as a multicultural day from Australia’s oldest inhabitants to new migrants,” he says. “We want it to be a day that celebrates all of those facets of Australia. We are the lucky country and we should celebrate such a peaceful and prosperous country.”

Sankaran is not opposed to the cancellation of the Fremantle fireworks, believing colourful explosions in the sky is a frivolous way of celebrating a country. “When we talk about celebrations, by watching fireworks, what have you achieved?” he says. “In terms of being a nation and getting to know someone you previously didn’t know from a different culture or learning something about the country, I can’t see where fireworks are relevant.”

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A few weeks after Fremantle council made its announcement, an online petition was made, calling on ABC’s youth branch Triple J to move its annual Hottest 100 countdown to a different day, to the chagrin of its regular listeners. The ABC ultimately decided against the move but stated it would review the matter in the future.

Stasiuk says the debate surrounding the countdown is understandable and is glad there is one. “The more we debate, the more we can start to look at history and how we can make sure we are all in this together,” he says.

“It’s political correctness in this day and age. It would be a shame in a way because it is such an embedded part of the youth culture to do that as the countdown does showcase Australian and Indigenous artists. As long as the debate is there, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer, I think it’s important Australia does have a debate.”

Pettitt says the Triple J controversy demonstrated to him there is a national debate. “I do actually think that we will see the Hottest 100 move,” he says. “It’s a tough one because it is a holiday we have together as a nation but I do think the more you think about Australia Day and what it really means, the more you have a rethink of it. It will be a debate the country will have over the next few years.”

When asked about the slowly changing landscape of celebrations, Lewis says she thinks Australia Day has come a long way from what it was originally intended to be. “For most Australians, in my opinion it’s moved on from the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet,” she says.

“I accept that there are some Australians that call for the date to change because it reminds us of a terrible time in our nation’s history, but the majority want to use that date to celebrate our national identity, community spirit and mateship, our rich blend of cultures, our natural friendliness, our magnificent and diverse landscape, our climate and our cohesion as a dynamic modern nation.”

Lewis says it would be shame if more events were cancelled in the future, believing there would need to be a significant majority around the country for the federal government to open up a conversation about changing the date. “Ultimately, the date we celebrate our national day is for the people of Australia to decide.”