If you were to ask me how Australian I feel, I’d say very little. There isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not reminded that not only am I a foreigner, which is bad enough, but that I’m American, which is probably the worst kind of foreigner. My otherness is highlighted most strongly on Australia Day.
What is Australia Day? Celebrated annually on the 26th of January, it marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British Ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales, and raising of the Flag of Great Britain at that site by Governor Arthur Phillip. The American equivalent is Columbus Day. The big difference between Australia Day and Columbus Day is in their observation.
On Columbus Day, kids get a break from school and many businesses close in some states; not all states observe Columbus Day. Americans increasingly recognise a number of problems regarding Columbus Day.
First, the Italian explorer didn’t actually discover America. Not only were the indigenous people already there, Columbus was preceded by a Norse expedition in the 11th century. The significance of Columbus’s voyages is that they led to the first lasting contact between Europe and America and inaugurated a period of European exploration, conquest, and colonization, which leads to my next point. The arrival of Columbus meant the beginning of the genocide of Native American people. Also, Columbus was an asshole.
In sharp contrast, Australia Day is celebrated with great fanfare. Festivals, barbecues, community awards, and citizenship ceremonies are held all over the country. While it hasn’t always been so festively observed, Australia Day is now the nation’s biggest annual civic event.
But for the First Peoples, Australia Day is Invasion Day.
No other day in Australia highlights more strongly how little the average Aussie really cares about Aboriginal people. A barbecue becomes more important than the ongoing trauma and displacement of Indigenous Australians.
Here’s the thing: there is nothing wrong with celebrating Australia. It is a wonderful country with great people and great accomplishments. And I don’t think most Aussies even know why we celebrate Australia Day on the 26th of January. When I first arrived, nobody I asked knew. Most people just said it was for fun and getting drunk. So why can’t we proclaim the 26th of January First Fleet Day and give Australia Day another date that isn’t tainted with devastation?
I can’t help but think it is intentional and nefarious to insist on celebrating Australia Day on the 26th of January. The ongoing mistreatment of Aboriginal people is masked by positive Australia Day myths and celebrations. It is a legacy that legitimises their mistreatment and continues to exclude or diminish the culture and myths of Aboriginal people. I’ve seen white people say that Aboriginal people should be grateful because Europeans brought civilisation, reason, science, and productivity to what was essentially an underdeveloped land inhabited by primitive people, a sentiment echoed by our own Prime Minister when he described Sydney as having been “nothing but bush” prior to the arrival of the First Fleet. And for choosing to abstain from celebrating a day that marks the beginning of the decimation of their culture, Aboriginal people are painted as angry, bitter whingers and un-Australian. Celebrating and mythologising the European settlement of Australia makes it easier for people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, or for those of their government, regarding Aboriginal people.
Australia Day is uncomfortable for me. A lot of people think that loving your country is about being loud, waving the national flag, and singing the anthem. Criticism is viewed as un-patriotic and if you don’t like it, you can go back to where you came from. It’s the very same jingoist behaviour that Aussies criticize Americans for. Thankfully, there are many Australians who see the problem of Australia Day such as Dick Smith, 2009 Australian of the Year Mick Dodson, and Australian historian Henry Reynolds.
If Australia Day is meant to be a celebration of the best of Australia and all of its people, it needs to fully embrace its Indigenous heritage as well as its British heritage plus the greater diversity and contributions of its immigrants. Only then will Australia Day truly promote an inclusive sense of common citizenship and purpose.