January 26th 2018 marked 230 years of European colonisation, genocide, and slavery on the First Peoples of this land. It also marked 80 years of Indigenous Australian resistance to Invasion Day and the celebration of genocide. A historic civil rights protest known as the Day of Mourning was carried out by Indigenous Australians on 26 January 1938, on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet, protesting the callous treatment of the First Peoples of Australia, and appealing for equality.
This year, protests were held around the country, and thousands of protestors rallied to change the day of Australia Day celebrations. More than 5000 people joined the protest march outside the Victorian Parliament. In Sydney, two rallies were held, one which recreated the 1988 Long March for Justice Through Treaty on its 30th anniversary, and another which started at The Block in Redfern and marched towards the Yabun Festival. Demonstrators also streamed into an Invasion Day protest today in Perth at Forrest Chase, Murray Street Mall. The rally featured speeches from Aboriginal elders Uncle Ben Taylor, Uncle Mervyn Eades, and Aunty Diane Jackson, a traditional dance by Marianna Headland Mackay, and a march to Birak Festival on the Supreme Court Gardens. Protest organiser Corina Howard was pleased with the turnout, saying, “It was the biggest rally we’ve had for our people here in Perth, Western Australia. We all come from one country – Mother Earth. We have to walk with one another in unity, and we’ve done that today.”
Student activism and political involvement has always been an integral part of the Australian university experience. From Freedom Rides to protests against education cuts, the student body’s involvement in politics and activism has been undeniable. In keeping with this tradition, members of the UWA Student Guild body were also there, including Guild President Megan Lee. This follows on from the Guild Council passing a motion supporting the #ChangeTheDate campaign to stand in solidarity with the Western Australian Student Aboriginal Corporation (WASAC) and Indigenous students on campus. The official UWA Student Guild Facebook page has also shared the petition by the Union of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students (UATSIS) to change the date of Australia Day. In a statement to Pelican, Lee stated, “The Guild should not only show students that we are relevant and we care about issues that impact them, but we’re also willing to do something about it. Getting students involved is something I am really passionate about, and we have to show students how these issues impact them.”
The arguments against changing the date are varied – the day is a pivotal moment in Australian history, it must be preserved for the sake of respecting tradition, it is far too difficult to change the date and give Indigenous Australians the recognition they seek. Many others view changing the date as a non-issue – something that isn’t as important materially for the nation, and is simply the work of social justice warriors and left-wing elites. Others say that present-day white Australians shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of the past.
At the end of the day, let’s call a spade a spade. It is important to acknowledge that the reason why many people don’t want to change the date of Australia Day is racism. There we go – I’ve said the dreaded ‘r’ word. Cue the rabble ready to accuse me of playing the race card purely because I am a brown woman. Cue those ready to call me a snowflake or better yet, a slur. Cue the white hysterics because apparently it’s worse being called a racist than actually being one. It’s fine. Doesn’t change the fact that Australia is a country built on years of racism, and that its people are determined to hide its past through a façade of well-meaning multiculturalism.
26 January is truly an oddball day for Australia Day to be celebrated. James Cook and the First Fleet didn’t even arrive in Australia on January 26 – rather on January 20. And all of this confusion about dates is further compounded by the fact that Australia only became a federated nation on January 1, 1901. And the icing on the cake is that this ‘tradition’ is only 24 years old, since Australia Day was given official public holiday status only in 1994. So what meaning does January 26th actually hold for Australia apart from loss, death and trauma for Indigenous Australians?
And yes, it’s true, changing the date won’t fix the deep-seeded racial injustices of our nation, and nor will it actually begin changing the high rates of police brutality, deaths in custody, and poor health outcomes for Aboriginal Australians. And no, it won’t atone for the sins of the past. But it will be a start; a step towards reconciliation and healing. It will show the Indigenous community that we are serious about building a nation that celebrates each and every one of us. It will acknowledge that white Australia has a Black history. It will hopefully be the start of an actual multicultural tradition that heals wounds, rather than rubbing salt on existing ones. It will be the throwing of a party that every one of us will have pride in RSVP-ing to.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that the Change The Date campaign would “take a day that unites Australia and Australians and turn it into one that would divide us.” To say that Australia day is a day of unity is not only woefully ignorant of Prime Minister Turnbull, but also extremely insensitive. Claiming Australia Day as a day of unity is about the whitest (and most historically revisionist) thing a person can do considering the massacres and protests that have taken place on this day. For instance, on 26 January 1968, a group of mounted police under instruction from the colonial government killed at least 40 Kamilaroi people during a surprise attack on a camp at Waterloo Creek in northern New South Wales. The erasure of white Australia’s terror upon our Indigenous population, and its denial of mistreatment and racism are the bread and butter of Australia Day. Doesn’t seem very united to me.
When I first became a citizen of Australia, no one taught me about my place in the settler colonist history of Australia. Instead I was pontificated to about the Australian values of mateship, resourcefulness and courage. So why can’t I see those values in play now? Why doesn’t our mateship extend to our Indigenous brothers and sisters? Why can we not be resourceful enough to change the date of one public holiday? Why don’t we have the courage to confront our past and change our future?
So let’s seriously reflect on what it means to change the date, and how important it is to embrace our differences, and walk on the path to healing. The alternatives to January 26 are already out there with people suggesting Wattle Day (September 1st) and Mabo Day (June 3rd), among many others. Try to think outside the box and see how changing the date of Australia Day could mean so much to so many people.
Ishita Mathur | @ishitamathur7
Photography of banner at Forrest Chase, Murray Street Mall by Ishita Mathur