Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Australian of the Year 2012: Geoffrey Rush; Senior Australian of the Year 2012: Laurie Baymarrwannga; Young Australian of the Year 2012: Marita Cheng; Australia’s Local Hero of the Year 2012: Lynne Sawyers. Congratulations!

Today 26th January, is Australia Day, which is our country’s National Day, celebrated across the nation, and an official public holiday. The tradition of having Australia Day as a national holiday on 26th January is a recent one. Not until 1935 did all the Australian states and territories use that name to mark this date. Not until 1994 did all the states and territories begin to celebrate Australia Day consistently as a public holiday on this date.

The tradition of celebrating on 26th January began early in the nineteenth century with Sydney almanacs referring to it as “First Landing Day” or “Foundation Day”. On January 26th, in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain and the first governor of New South Wales, arrived at Sydney Cove. Immediately he and his crew landed, they raised the Union Jack symbolizing British occupation of the eastern half of the continent claimed by Captain James Cook on 22nd  August, 1770.

Some immigrants who prospered in Sydney (especially so those who had been convicts or the sons of convicts), began marking the colony’s beginnings with an anniversary dinner, called rather grandiloquently “an emancipist festival” to celebrate their love of the land they lived in. Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the emancipists’ friend, made the thirtieth anniversary of the day in 1818 a public holiday, thirty guns counting out the years of British civilisation, a tradition Macquarie’s successors continued.

In 1888, to celebrate the centenary, representatives of the Australian sister colonies (now five in number), went to Sydney to celebrate with New South Wales in 1888. New Zealanders were also present. Victoria had separated from New South Wales in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. In 1863 control of the Northern Territory passed from New South Wales to South Australia. Only Western Australia was not self-governing by 1888, having a smaller population and developing more slowly, even after taking convicts between 1850 and 1868. Essentially transportation to New South Wales had ended in 1840. Van Diemen's Land, with self-government by 1856, had gained a new name, Tasmania, having ended transportation a few years before.

Celebrations surrounding the inauguration of the new Commonwealth of Australia on 1st of January in Sydney and at the opening of its first Federal Parliament on 9th May in Melbourne overshadowed “Anniversary Day” in 1901. Federation had been a remarkable political achievement, so it is understandable that any other commemoration faded into insignificance. However, it is also important to remember that although the colonies chose to be self-governing, they remained within the British Empire, and did not become independent outside it. The colonies with nearly four million population may have been Australian, but they were also British.

In 1938, at the time of the sequicentenary, Australians wer still 98 per cent British in background and had found agreement on the name, timing and nature of the day's celebration they had come to share. The nation now had its own capital, Canberra (in the Australian Capital Territory, marked out of New South Wales in 1908) and a provisional Parliament House. The Northern Territory, controlled by the federal government from 1911, was not to gain self-government until 1978.

The NSW government, seeking to match Victoria’s celebration of its centenary in 1934, had chosen as its centrepiece the re-enactment of Captain Phillips’ arrival and flag-raising at Sydney Cove, followed by a pageant. There were 120 motorised floats, stretching 1.5 miles, which took one and a half hours to pass through the streets of Sydney. The pageant’s theme, March to Nationhood, became the title of a film documenting the celebrations. The first float depicted traditional Aboriginal life, followed by the pastoral and other industries. There was no mention of convicts, following a decision of the executive committee of the Celebrations Council, endorsed by the president of the Royal Australian Historical Society.

On that Australia Day of 1938, there were also about one hundred Aborigines in Sydney who had come to present a different view of the celebrations. For them and those they represented, Australia Day was a “Day of Mourning”. The meeting of Aborigines at the Australian Hall on “…the 150th Anniversary of the Whitemen’s seizure of our country…” passed unanimously a resolution  protesting at the Whitemen’s mistreatment of Aborigines since 1788 and appealing for new laws ensuring equality for Aborigines within the Australian community. Among their leaders pressing for Aboriginal rights were William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aborigines’ League in Victoria in 1936, and Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson and Pearl Gibbs, who headed the Aborigines’ Progressive Association, formed New South Wales in 1937.

To celebrate the bicentenary, on Australia Day 1988 Sydney Harbour was the centre of attention. It was an extraordinary spectacle that attracted about two million people to its shores, witnessing the arrival of Tall Ships from around the world and the First Fleet re-enactment. By contrast, the “Tent City” of the Bicentennial Exhibition travelled the country visiting thirty-four cities and towns to involve Australians in the celebration. Aborigines declared their opposition to the celebrations of 26th January 1988 with land rights flags at Lady Macquarie’s Point on Sydney Harbour, the Bondi Pavilion protest concert, and the gathering of Aboriginal marchers and white supporters at Belmore Park. Posters summarised their protest: “White Australia has a Black History — Don’t Celebrate 1988”; and “Australia Day = Invasion Day 1988”. Some of the rights sought by Aboriginal protesters in 1938 had been achieved, but there was still great inequality between Aborigines and other Australians.

From 1993 the National Australia Day Council formally recognised the need to encourage reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians in Australia Day celebrations. Later the Council worked with Reconciliation Australia, the private organisation, which in 2001 succeeded the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan for implementation in 2007. This initiative suggested a healing role for the Council in bringing Australians together, despite the difficulties of the date’s associations and the alienating symbolism of the flag.

New South Wales, and Sydney especially, has long celebrated 26th January to mark the beginning of British occupation of Australia. Victoria and the other Australian states and territories, persuaded by the Australian Natives’ Association, came to accept Australia Day by 1935, celebrating it together with a long weekend. Since 1979, federal government promotion of an Australia Day that was less British and more Australian gave the day a higher profile in the hope of unifying Australia’s increasingly diverse population. The long weekend gave way to the day itself in 1994, and ten years later Canberra displaced Sydney as the day’s focal point.

However, Aboriginal Australians have continued to feel excluded from what has long been a British pioneering settler celebration, symbolised by the raising of the Union Jack and later the Australian flag which bears the British flag. Debate over the date and nature of Australia Day continues as the National Australia Day Council seeks to meet the challenge of making 26th January a day all Australians can accept and enjoy.