A short history of Australia Day, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reactions to it

There has been recent and recurring public debate about the significance of Australia Day and its meaning to Indigenous Australians. This FlagPost gives a short history of both the day and of Indigenous reactions to and opinions about it.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blog contains names and contains links to images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material. It quotes and links to historical figures' views that contain terms that would not be considered appropriate today. 

A short history of Australia Day

The twenty sixth of January is the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip landing in Sydney Cove and raising the Union Flag, after the previous abortive landing in Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. The colony was formally founded and Arthur Phillip’s Governorship proclaimed on 7 February.

According to the Australia Day Council’s History of Australia Day, 26 January was first gazetted as a public holiday for New South Wales by Governor Macquarie in 1818, when it was referred to as First Landing Day or Foundation Day. The other colonies had different founding day holidays: Regatta Day on 1 December marked Abel Tasman's claiming of Van Diemen's Land for Holland in 1642, and the proclamation of its separation from New South Wales in 1825. Foundation Day, on 1 June, in Western Australia, commemorated the arrival of settlers in 1829, and Proclamation Day on 28 December, the beginnings of British government in South Australia.

By 1888, 26 January was celebrated in most colonies as ‘Foundation Day’ or ‘Anniversary Day’, although South Australia instead celebrated King Edward’s coronation on 22 January and only adopted 26 January as a public holiday in 1910. During the latter part of the 19th century, the ‘Australian Natives Association’ (ANA) (for people born in Australia of European descent) became a strong lobby group for Federation and for celebrating a national holiday on 26 January.

During World War I, 30 July 1915 was designated ‘Australia Day’ and drew upon reports of the recent Gallipoli campaign to raise funds for the war effort. By 1918, some state branches of the ANA were referring to 26 January as Australia Day, with others preferring Foundation Day or Anniversary Day. In March 1930, the ANA annual conference resolved to name the day ‘Australia Day’ and persuaded all states to rename the day by 1935. The ANA’s preferred policy was that the public holiday was placed on the following Monday, to ensure a long weekend. Some states adopted this policy while others used 26 January itself.

In 1946, the ANA transformed into the various state/territory Australia Day Councils, which were amalgamated and made official by the Federal Government’s National Australia Day Committee in 1980. Some states had a public holiday on 26 January, while others used the first Monday following. In 1988, the states all marked the Bicentennial of Phillip’s landing as a public holiday. Gazetting of 26 of January as the Australia Day public holiday became uniform in 1994.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reactions to Australia Day

Aborigines are said to have boycotted the 1888 Centennial celebrations.

By 1938, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had created organisations such as the Aborigines Progressive Association and the Australian Aboriginal League to lobby for Aboriginal recognition and rights, including organising a large-scale petition to King George V for Aboriginal representation in Parliament after the New Zealand model of reserved seats for Maori. Indigenous actions marking the sesquicentennial included:

  • publication of a manifesto, ‘Aborigines claim Citizenship Rights’
  • an appeal to the churches of Australia to commemorate the Sunday before Australia Day (in 1938, 23 January) as ‘Aborigines Day’, which was widely adopted by 1940 and continued until 1955, when it moved to the first Sunday in July; today National Aborigines and Islanders Day opens NAIDOC week
  • proclaiming 26 January a ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’, accompanied by an all-Aboriginal meeting at Australia Hall
  • a meeting with the Prime Minister Joseph Lyons to discuss the 10 point plan for a Commonwealth Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs, equal citizens’ rights including in wages, social security and access to housing, health and education for Aborigines in remote areas, and land rights. Prime Minister Lyons rejected the plan on the grounds that the Constitution prohibited Commonwealth action in Aboriginal Affairs, which would later become one of the spurs to the 1967 referendum.

Aboriginal protest against Australia Day celebrations was not uniform, with David Unaipon, the prominent Aboriginal inventor, preacher and advocate, describing the protests as a ‘huge mistake’ being led by ‘half castes’ which would not be supported by ‘full blooded Aborigines’, who would instead ‘await stoically and silently the granting of the privileges now enjoyed by the dominant white race’.

The official 1938 ceremonies included Aborigines who were to flee from the British forces in a re-enactment of the First Fleet landing. Since Sydney Aboriginal communities refused to take part or were considered unsuitable, a group of 25 men from Menindee and Brewarrina reserves led by Hero Black were transported to Sydney and confined in the Redfern Police Barracks. They were not paid for their performance and were forbidden contact with Sydney Aboriginal people and organisations. After the performance they featured on a parade float, as part of ‘the grand procession of motorised floats, ‘Australia’s March to Nationhood’’.

Since 1938 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around the country have continued to mark 26 January as a ‘Day of Mourning’ and more recently ‘Invasion Day’, or ‘Survival Day’. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra was established on 26 January 1972 in protest at the McMahon government’s rejection of Aboriginal land rights. On the Bicentenary in 1988, 40,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their supporters staged a mass march from Redfern Park across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to protest ‘Invasion Day’. In 2013, Flinders Island Council stopped celebrating Australia Day. Flinders Island has a 16% Aboriginal population, many of whom are descendants of Aborigines relocated to the island from Tasmania following what several histories of the period have described as the Tasmanian Aboriginal genocide.

An opinion poll released on Australia Day 2017 asked Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians whether the date of Australia Day should change. 54% of Indigenous Australians polled were in favour of a change, compared with 15% of all Australians polled. Less than a quarter of Indigenous Australians (23%) felt positive about Australia Day, 31% felt negative about it, and a further 30% said they had mixed feelings. In contrast, the overall polled majority (68%) felt positive about Australia Day, 19% indifferent and 7% had mixed feelings about the event, while 6% of people felt negative about Australia Day.

A more recent poll conducted in December 2017 found that 56% of Australians did not mind what date Australia Day was celebrated as long as a national day was celebrated, 49% thought it should not be on a day that was offensive to Indigenous Australians, and 37% thought that the current date was offensive to Indigenous Australians. Although different questions were asked in the two polls, this may suggest broader public opinion is shifting.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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