Sometime between 18 and 20 January, 1788, a fleet of 11 ships Captained by Arthur Phillip arrived uninvited at Botany Bay. They didn’t like the spot, so a few days later they left again, and hopped over to Port Jackson, arriving on 26 January and establishing a disruptive and expansionist colony without the permission of the people who already lived there.
Since then, the way different individuals and groups within our society have commemorated this occasion has changed and evolved continually. There’s never been a national consensus as to how we should mark the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’.
In recent decades, 26 January has become a time of celebration for many Australians. As a child, I always felt uncomfortable about Australia Day because it was the time of year when I felt least welcomed and accepted by my community, despite being born in Brisbane and having known no other home.
The way in which many Australians marked the date seemed to subtly reinforce the idea that white Australians who conformed to dominant social norms were somehow more Australian than me. These days we do a slightly better job of celebrating cultural diversity, but it can still feel a little tokenistic, like we’re reducing different cultures to the food they cook or the clothes they wear, rather than celebrating and learning from their underlying values and contrasting worldviews.
But putting that aside for a moment, the most controversial aspect of 26 January is that as the anniversary of the establishment of the British colony at Sydney Cove, it also marks the beginning of the European invasion. So celebrating on 26 January means partying on the anniversary of the invasion.
Speaking practically, I don’t think it’s technically correct to say that the majority of people who celebrate 26 January are actively celebrating the British invasion of this continent. I think most of them would say they’re celebrating the positive aspects of modern Australia.
But even if you’re not celebrating the invasion itself, it’s still kinda messed up to spend so much energy and put so much emphasis on celebrating modern Australia on this date while completely ignoring our dark history, and while playing down the many ongoing injustices and abuses that our government continues to promote against First Nations people, and a long list of other marginalised groups.
What’s frustrating is that as soon as you dare to question the current form or underlying values of Australia Day, you’re immediately subjected to a barrage of aggressive personal criticism. Too many people seem to interpret any critique of Australia Day as a personal attack on them as individuals. Every year I make a few public statements questioning whether it’s appropriate to be celebrating on the anniversary of the invasion, and without fail I’ll be told to go back to where I come, to love it or leave, to fit in or fuck off. This seems to happen no matter how diplomatically I choose my words.
But the need for nuanced, empathetic dialogue goes both ways. I don’t think it’s constructive or fair to argue that everyone who happens to go to a backyard barbeque on 26 January is racist.
So all I’m asking this year, is that people approach the conversation with respect and an open mind. If you’re not quite sure what you think of it all, take the time to read a few opinion pieces or watch a few videos about the issue.
The meaning and significance of 26 January is always changing, and has been a topic of debate for centuries now, so don’t fall for the lazy “we’ve always done it this way” arguments.
I’d like to suggest that all Greens members and representatives get along to an Invasion Day or Survival Day event if you can, and hear the perspectives of First Nations peoples. This isn’t just about what happened in the past. There’s still a lot of ongoing discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that we need to take action on.
This is a complex issue. Invasion Day definitely shouldn’t be forgotten. But the way many of us currently celebrate it is deeply problematic, and we need to continue the conversation about it rather than ignoring or attacking anyone who disagrees with us.