Australia Day: What is it? And Why it's Controversial

I'll be real and say that I didn't really know anything about Australia Day before I moved there and most of my knowledge came from the people I met before I looked into it myself. I wasn't even aware of the tumultuous history behind the day and the controversy that keeps growing every year.

That's why I thought I would write a bit about what Australia Day is, my experience when I was living in Australia and also the controversy around it.

Let's start with the basics: What is Australia Day?

The date January 26th has come to be known as a national day to celebrate being an Australian. According to the official Australia Day website, it's a day to "celebrate all the things we love about Australia: land, sense of fair go, lifestyle, democracy, the freedoms we enjoy but particularly our people". It's seen as an independence day and for most Australian's its a day to be proud of the country they live in.

What is the history behind Australia Day?

Historically, January 26th is the date in 1788 that Captain Arthur Phillip landed in Sydney Cove with his convict ships from Britain with the aim of starting a colony. Australia Day used to be referred to as "Landing Day" or "Foundation Day". The settlers of Sydney began celebrating the landing day because they saw it as emancipation from Great Britain. It grew in popularity over the decades, but didn't become an official national holiday until 1994. If you want more detailed history, historian Dr. Elizabeth Kwan compiled a timeline here.

How do Australians celebrate Australia Day?

Many Australians celebrate this day by going to the beach or having a barbecue. If you're from the States you would find it very similar to how American's celebrate 4th of July. Just like in the USA, Australia Day is during the summer (since it's the southern hemisphere) and there is usually a lot of food, beer and music (specifically an infamous music countdown by triple j). Australians around the country listen to this countdown all day to hear the number 1 song of the year as voted by the country.

I celebrated Australia Day two years in a row with a different groups of Australians. The first Australia Day I celebrated was in 2016 which happened to be a very hot and rainy day. We set out to Palm Beach from Brisbane to our roommate's friends house party. With first introductions we were handed a XXXX (beer brewed in Queensland) and the triple j radio channel was turned up to full blast. At one point, the rain cleared and we quickly ran to the nearby beach to take a dip and enjoy the brief break from the weather.

The second year (2017) I was working at a Barre Retreat. The owner, the staff and the retreaters were mostly Australian and I got to be part of their celebration. It consisted of our regular retreat schedule in the morning (a hike and barre class) and in the afternoon, we cranked the radio, put up strands of Australia flags and fired up the grill. That year we celebrated with the Aussie sausage sizzle which is basically a hot dog but instead of a hot dog bun, you use regular white bread to wrap your sausage in.

I feel like these are the types of experiences you would have if you visited Australia on Australia Day as a tourist or traveler. However, on January 26th there are also protests and marches that happen in big cities against what this day represents to different Australians. Which brings me to the next section...

What is the controversy behind Australia Day?

Similar to the history of the United States, where the British colonized the America, Australia was also colonized. In the United States there are critiques of celebrating Independence Day because this land was taken from Native Americans. Same goes for Australia.

The land that is now Australia was taken from the original settlers, the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Once the land was occupied by the British, indigenous people were marginalized, they weren't allowed to continue speaking their languages or practice their belief systems. This population is still recovering and its effects can be seen through the amount of Indigenous Australians who are struggling in the areas of education, healthcare and incarceration. Thus, many Indigenous Australians have become very vocal on the fact that this day isn't a celebration for them. This day signifies an invasion on their people.

With more exposure on this topic, there are many Australians (both indigenous and not) who are in favor of changing Australia Day to a different date. They feel like they cannot celebrate the nation wholly when this date so many years ago brought about suffering and misfortune to the Indigenous community.

In addition, as Tom Chalma of Reconciliation Australia states, changing the date would mean that Australia "is ready to truly accept and include Indigenous histories, cultures and contributions as a valued part of the Australian story".

There are surveys and polls that go around the country to see what the Australian population thinks about changing the day. And there do seem to be changes happening to respect Indigenous people. For example, this year triple j changed the day of their countdown because they wanted everyone to be able to enjoy the Hottest 100. Not only that, but they polled their audience with two surveys covering 65,749 people's votes that were in favor of having the date changed. You can find the full story here.

In conclusion, it's a very complicated history with a lot of view points but now you have a better idea of what Australia Day is all about and how it came to be.

I love the Australia I lived in, I enjoyed meeting the people who call it home and I hope that the all of the Australian people are able to come to a respectful and compassionate agreement on what this day should mean and how it should be truly celebrated.

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