Australia Day

AustraliaIf 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.

2007 Invasion Day rally and march in Brisbane at Let's Take Over. Image by David Jackmanson, CC BY-SA 2.0.

2007 Invasion Day rally and march in Brisbane at Let’s Take Over. Image by David Jackmanson, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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.

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7 Comments

  1. I haven’t gotten Columbus Day off in years, not since high school. Didn’t get it off in college, Spain, and now I work for a company that doesn’t observe many holidays. And I have the same issues with Columbus that you do. He wasn’t that great of a guy and he accidentally “discovered” some islands. How does that merit a national holiday in the US?

    You could kind of compare Australia Day to Thanksgiving. The story of the First Thanksgiving is mostly true but a lot of it is embellished for children. And after that period of harvest festival, many settlers enslaved Native Americans who died when exposed to European diseases.

    I don’t know much about the Aboriginal people of Australia or how they are treated by Australians. Do they have reservations too similar to the American system with Native Americans?

    • Australia Day is more like 4th of July than Thanksgiving Day – very patriotic, summer, barbecues, etc. I can’t think of any equivalent to Thanksgiving. Aboriginal Australians don’t live in reservations. Most of them live in urban centers. For those that live in in remote areas, the conditions are comparable to some American reservations. They live in cramped conditions and some areas don’t have stable electricity or adequate plumbing.

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  3. I just found your blog today, and perfect timing! I couldn’t agree more with this post… I am American as well, and this was my fist Australia Day. There is a LOT about Australia that I love, but I am constantly aware that I am considered an outsider, and today more than usual.
    I am not even a little surprised about the callousness of choosing this particular day as Australia Day… in the 9 months I have spent here so far, I have seen more racism than I did in 26 years in California… which says a lot. I live in Townsville, and I guess it is supposed to be particularly bad up here, but it still makes me sick to my stomach, and the longer I am here, the more my initial love of this place fades. But then, as every second bumper sticker says, the attitude is “If you don’t love it, leave!”

    • Hi MaryAnne. Is that QLD? I’ve heard that area can be pretty bad in terms of race relations. I’d like to think that the culture is changing, but there is a lot of work to do. Thanks for your comments!

      • Yes, the biggest city in North Queensland, about 4 hours south of Cairns. It is a beautiful place but the coolness toward any outsiders is noticeable… its very much a small town in that respect. But the way people talk about and to Aboriginals is disgusting… just normal looking guys at bars- complete strangers- have threatened Aboriginals for standing too close to me, and I have heard women tell their children to “stay away from the ” while in the grocery store. My partner, who talks to random people a lot as he is a meter reader, comes home from work on a nearly daily basis completely appalled at the derogatory racial comments people make in casual conversation with him, as if he as a white person clearly must share their feelings.

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