Explained: What is Australia Day and what is the controversy surrounding it?


January 26 is observed as Australia Day in the country to commemorate the arrival of the “First Fleet” of ships at Sydney from Britain in 1788.

Some critics, however, call it “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” as it marks the beginning of dispossession of the continent’s indigenous people.

In recent years, the celebration became controversial because of a “change the date” campaign, the supporters of which demand that the date of Australia Day be changed from January 26 to May 9.

What is the controversy surrounding this day?

On May 9 in 1901, Australia’s first parliament was opened and the six British colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Significantly, the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people see January 26 as the day when colonists took over their lands and they maintain that their people continue to suffer the effects of colonisation and racism.

The “First Australians”–a term used to refer to Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people as the first people of Australia–associate the day as the beginning of the time when they suffered massacres, land theft, stolen children and oppression.

Writing in The Guardian, Nakkiah Lui, a Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman said the refusal to celebrate Australia Day is a part of the fight for the recognition of the abuse of indigenous people’s rights.

The Aboriginal-led organisation Common Ground says, “The purpose of changing the date is to recognise that many people value having a special day to celebrate the place they call home, while also acknowledging the traumatic context and history that 26 January in particular represents.”

Alternatively, there is the idea that Australia Day should be abolished as a national holiday, arguing that there is nothing to celebrate until more work is done towards bringing social justice for the indigenous people and acknowledging that the values the day celebrates, which includes equality, freedom and opportunity is not what many Australians experience.

So, what happened in 1788?

According to Australia’s Migration Heritage Centre, the First Fleet refers to 11 ships that left Portsmouth in 1787 with over 1480 men, women and children on board. While most of them were British, there were African, American and French convicts on these ships as well. The purpose of this was to find a convict settlement colony. According to the Museum of Sydney, at the time, there were about 12,000 British commercial and naval ships plying the world’s oceans, but the First Fleet convoy consisted of two naval ships, six convict transports and three storeships.

The fleet of ships arrived at Botany Bay on Australia’s east coast on January 18, 1788, bringing in the first European settlers to Australia. The commander of this fleet was Captain Arthur Philip who rejected Botany Bay and decided to take the fleet further ahead to Port Jackson (present-day Sydney), which was chosen as the site for the new colony after the fleet arrived there a few days later, on January 26, 1788.

What are the arguments against change of date?

As per information available with the Library of Congress, many Australians are proud of their convict ancestry and being a descendant of a “First Fleeter” (a convict, officer or sailor) is especially significant for some of them. An article published in The Sydney Morning Herald says that, “There was a time, only a generation or so ago when such matters wouldn’t be discussed in polite society, if at all. Convict shame, however, has become convict chic.”

Referring to an academic paper from 2003, it goes on to say that since the 1988 bicentenary, ancestors who were first arrivals to Australia, especially those associated with the First Fleet, were one of the most sought-after prizes of genealogical inquiry.

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Among the convicts, one named Mary Bryant was the first one who successfully escaped the colony and returned to Britain. She was sentenced for seven years for assault and robbery and escaped the colony on March 28, 1791. Her story inspired many in England and she was pardoned in May 1793.

Another convict James Ruse became the first person from the colony to get a land grant when governor Phillip gave him 30 acres at Parramatta in April 1791. Ruse was sentenced to seven years for breaking and entering and remained in the colony until his death in September 1837.

The First Fleet monument is located in the state of New South Wales and is engraved with the names of all the new arrivals.

Last week, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was criticised for saying that January 26 “wasn’t a flash day for those on first fleet vessels either”. Morrison has been critical of those supporting the change-the-date campaign and has said that the day should be acknowledged as the time when Australia began its journey as a modern nation.

Several people have been arrested in Sydney for breaking COVID-19 restrictions while they took part in rallies calling for the date of the day to be changed.

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