Australia Day, Invasion Day
I begin today by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, Traditional Custodians of the land on which I stand today, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples reading this.
To anyone unfamiliar with this, it is an Acknowledgement of Country, and is a way to show respect for First Nations people in Australia, a type of cultural protocol (Commonwealth of Australia, n.d.). The Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples are the traditional custodians of the land where I live, but each different part of Australia has different peoples to be acknowledged.
WARNING: This article will contain the names of people who have died.
This type of warning is a way to respect the sensitivities surrounding the use of names of the dead, in accordance with the First Nations cultures of Australia, cultures unique to this part of the world (McGrath & Phillips, 2008; NITV, 2017).
Australia Day is a public holiday held on 26 January Australia-wide and is the anniversary of the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, being raised at Sydney Cove and signalling the beginning of British colonisation efforts in the continent. However, this date has always been controversial. For British Australians in the 19th Century, it was seen as overly focussed on Sydney rather than Australia as a whole, while First Nations people saw it as a day of mourning for the beginning of the invasion that disrupted tens of thousands of years of civilisation (Jones, 2023), of the longest continuous civilisation in the world (Devlin, 2016).
There are now increasingly calls to change the date (Jones, 2023; Turnbull, 2023; Westcott & Wright, 2023). And while appeals to tradition are oft-heard, the 26th of January has only been a national public holiday across all of the states and territories of Australia since 1994, so as far as traditions go it hasn’t been one particularly set in stone (Jones, 2023). The full details of what dates were used and when is Byzantine and not of particular interest for this discussion beyond the fact it has changed over time: 26 January is the date considered here because this is the current date of the public holiday.
Australia as a nation state is a very young country, barely more than a century old (Commonwealth of Australia, 2022), however the history of people in this continent stretches back at least 65 000 years (Clarkson et al, 2017). It is estimated that 1.6 billion people lived and died in this land before the British colonised it a mere 233 years ago (Smith, 2002).
By the time the British arrived in Australia in 1788 to commence their colonisation of the continent, it was already inhabited by around 300 000 to a million First Nations people (Working With Indigenous Australians, 2020) organised into more than 250 nations or peoples (Walsh, 1991). Prior to the imposition of English as the dominant language (Dalby, 2015), it is estimated that the number of distinct languages spoken in the continent was somewhere in the range of 250 (Dixon, 2002) to 363 (Bowern, 2011).
The British settlers of Australia did not bother with pursuing legal agreements or treaties with the First Nations peoples, and instead in 1835 ‘terra nullius’ was proclaimed as the legal justification for taking the land. Terra nullius means “land belonging to no one”, with the First Nations peoples either being considered by the colonisers as ‘not people’, or more charitably, ‘people without the capacity to own land’. ‘Uncivilised’, if you will (Australian Museum, 2021).
Modern Australia was born on Federation Day, 1 January 1901, with the federation of the six British colonies into a united nation (Commonwealth of Australia, 2022). However, despite being its own country, the concept of an Australian citizenship would not be established until 1949 — until that point, Australian people were ‘British subjects’ and assigned British passports (National Museum of Australia, 2022).
THE STOLEN GENERATIONS
From 1910 to the 1970s, a series of multiple policies were enacted by governments across Australia to force assimilation by mixed race Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. This was done through governments and the police legally kidnapping children from their families and communities and sending them to “institutions or foster homes” or by adopting them out to “white families”. It is believed that one-third of all indigenous Australian children were stolen in this period of more than sixty years, hence the horrifyingly accurate moniker ‘the Stolen Generations’ (Nogrady, 2019).
The damage done to indigenous communities and individuals cannot be overstated and the trauma and resulting poverty is intergenerational in nature. Some specific details of how households with Stolen Generation individuals in them are worse off than indigenous households who were not directly impacted by this great immorality of public policy:
- the children are more than four times more likely to miss school
- the children are more likely to be mistreated at school
- the children are more likely to have poor health outcomes
- the children are almost twice as prone to experiencing stress
- the children are “much less likely to live in a home owned by a household member” (Nogrady, 2019)
It has been suggested that adverse policies like those that resulted in the Stolen Generations are major contributing factors for why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ life expectancies are at least ten years lower than for non-indigenous Australians. Despite the Australian Government’s intentions to raise the life expectancies of First Nations peoples closer to those of other Australians, it admits this will not be achieved within the next decade (Nogrady, 2019).
Also, despite the ending of the racist and assimilationist policies that resulted in the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still being taken from their families due to child welfare concerns: despite making up only 5.5% of Australian children, they make up almost 37% of “children placed in out-of-home care”. While priority is now given to place indigenous children with extended family or community, it is not always a feasible option. And unfortunately, this continued removal of children from their communities is furthering the trauma of the Stolen Generations in a new form, fifty years on from its end (Nogrady, 2019).
Despite Australia being a champion of progressive voting rights by becoming the second country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1902, it was not until 1962 that most First Nations people, of any gender, were granted the right to vote in federal elections. However, they would still have to wait until 1984 to be allowed to vote in state/territory and local elections (Hamilton, 2022; Heath, 2019). Also, it wasn’t until 1971 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were recorded in the Census (ABS, 2018).
Eddie Koiko Mabo, a Torres Strait Islander man, lodged many legal challenges in an attempt to restore First Nations peoples’ rights to their traditional lands. And despite his untimely death, his efforts would ultimately be fruitful posthumously as in 1992 the High Court of Australia invalidated the legal fiction of terra nullius and recognised that indigenous peoples had continuous connections and rights to their traditional lands: a concept known as Native Title (Australian Museum, 2021).
Artist Harold Thomas, a Luritja man and a child stolen from his family by white authorities, designed the Australian Aboriginal flag in 1970. The colours represent the Aboriginal people (black) and their spiritual connection to the land (red), as well as the sun (yellow) (AIATSIS, 2022a). When Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal woman, celebrated her victory in the 200 metres race at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, she caused a stir by carrying not only the Australian Flag but also the Aboriginal flag. This was controversial because the Aboriginal flag was not recognised as an official Australian flag (Baum, 2022). In response to this, the Aboriginal flag was proclaimed an official flag of Australia the following year (AIATSIS, 2022a; Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2022).
Bernard Namok, a Torres Strait Islander man, won a competition to design a flag for the Torres Strait Islander people in 1992. The colours represent the spiritual connection the people of the Torres Strait (black) share with the land (green), sea (blue) and sky (the star representing celestial navigation and the five island groups, with white representing peace). Torres Strait Islander culture is represented by the white ‘dhari’ or dancer’s headdress (AIATSIS, 2022b). The Torres Strait Islander flag was proclaimed an official flag of Australia in 1995 (AIATSIS, 2022b; Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2022).
As I have not sought nor received permission to reproduce the Torres Strait Islander flag, you may view it directly at the Torres Strait Island Regional Council website.
INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIA TODAY
According to the most recent Census, First Nations people make up 3.8% of Australians, or 984,000 people (ABS, 2021). However, their life expectancies range from one to two decades less than non-indigenous Australians. Also, chronic diseases are rampant in their populations (Australian Human Rights Commission, n.d.).
Of the many hundreds of indigenous languages spoken in Australia at the time of colonisation, fewer than 150 still remain, with 90% classified as endangered and unlikely to “survive beyond the next generation” (Dalby, 2015; Morse, 2020). And this is a problem because so much of the culture of indigenous Australians has already been lost, and “language is the vehicle by which culture is transmitted from generation to generation” (Morse, 2020).
The Constitution of Australia, the key document underpinning the country’s legal framework, does not make any mention that there were people here prior to colonisation (Australian Human Rights Commission, n.d.), and Australia is the only country in the British commonwealth that has no treaty with its indigenous peoples (Australian Museum, 2021).
CHANGE THE DATE
In recent years, politicians, business leaders and young people have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the implications of what the date of Australia Day represents (Turnbull, 2023; Westcott & Wright, 2023): the beginning of the dispossession of native lands, the destruction of indigenous culture and language, and the beginning of a multi-century genocide (Turnbull, 2023). This is what it means to the First Nations people of Australia, and other Australians are increasingly realising that it is “offensive and hurtful” to celebrate what many people regard as a “day of mourning” (Australian Museum, 2021).
There is a growing campaign to “change the date” of Australia Day. High-profile personalities such as Australian actor Chris Hemsworth have called for a change to the date. Many local councils changed the dates of their citizenship ceremonies away from the date, despite hostile repercussions they received in response from the previous conservative federal government, and the 2023 Australia Day parade in Victoria was cancelled by its state government. Large businesses like Woolworths (the largest grocery chain in Australia) and Telstra (the largest telecommunication provider in Australia) have given their workers the option to work on the public holiday and take another day off in lieu, and Kmart has ended their sale of Australia Day paraphernalia (Turnbull, 2023).
Opinion polling reflects this wind change in the mainstream consciousness, specifically:
- one in three Australians “support changing the date”
- a shrinking number of people support the existing date of 26 January
- one-half of people younger than 35 support a change in date (Turnbull, 2023)
- one-quarter of people would rather change the date and instead use 26 January as a day recognising First Nations peoples (Jones, 2023)
It is worth mentioning the peculiarity of Australia insofar “it is the only former British colony” to have its national day mark the commencement of colonisation (Westcott & Wright, 2023). The national day for the majority of nations represents the date they gained independence. However, Australia’s Federation was on 1 January, which is awkward to replace as that day is already populated by the New Year’s Day public holiday (Jones, 2023).
But probably less awkward than sticking to a date that celebrates the replacement of an existing indigenous population.
If you have any comments or questions, why not join the community and do so?
Author’s note: This article did not originally include the Ngambri people. This has now been corrected.
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