Wednesday, 22 January 2014

And what shall we do with the 26th of January?

In Australia, we've had a problem with the 26th of January for a few years now.

Officially, the 26th of January is Australia Day, the anniversary of the first permanent British settlement in Australia in 1788.  Officially, it is Australia Day ... Australia's national day ... the equivalent of Independence Day in the US and Bastille Day in France.

But there are problems with this day for many Australians.

For many indigenous Australians, the 26th of January represents, not the beginning of a nation, but the anniversary of their people's catastrophic loss of a continent.  In this light, some indigenous Australians call 26th January Invasion Day.  Other indigenous Australians call this day Survival Day, and see it as a occasion to mark the fact that Aboriginal Australia has survived their encounters with a (frequently) hostile European presence.  (In many ways, expecting Aboriginal Australians to become enthusiastic over Australia Day would be the equivalent of expecting Catholics in Northern Ireland to celebrate Orangemen's Day.)

Some Australians call this day Bogan Awareness Day, using a term ("bogan") that is the Australian equivalent of the American "redneck" or the British "chav".  This phrase recognises the fact that, in Australia on the 26th of January, many less sophisticated younger people of Anglo background engage in crude behaviour in public places in the name of "patriotism".  It's a good day to avoid the beach (and similar gathering places) if you have a low tolerance for antisocial behaviour.

Positively, many local government bodies use Australia Day as a celebration of Australia's multicultural reality.  Citizenship ceremonies and public concerts provide evidence of the significantly creative racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of today's Australia.  (These are some of the best public events that take place in Australia on 26th January.)

Nevertheless, celebrating the first British settlement is Australia may not be the most obvious choice for Australia's national day.  For example, the Yanks don't have a celebration of any sort on the 24th of May, which is the anniversary of the first British settlement (Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607) in what became the United States.  (To show how low-key the Jamestown date is for Americans, I even had to Google "Jamestown, Virginia" to get the date.)

To give this an Australian parallel:
  • Prior to 26th January 1788, there were people living here for thousands of years.
  • After 26th January 1788, Australia didn't become a nation in any real sense until Federation came into effect on 1st January 1901.
  • The only thing that was created on 26th January 1788 was the colony of New South Wales.  For those of us who live in Australia but outside NSW, this may be somewhat of a non-event.

Whether you regard 26th January as Australia Day, Invasion Day, Survival Day, Bogan Awareness Day, New South Wales Day, or merely the 26th of January, please do so gently, and with respect for your neighbour who chooses to regard the day differently to the way you do.  (Oh yes, and please drive carefully.)

Some further thoughts from four years later:

Essentially the Australia Day holiday serves three social functions in Australia:
  • It is a day when public citizenship ceremonies take place.  (And, as I've said earlier, these are some of the best events that take place on the 26th of January.)
  • It's a day when people are honoured by the wider community for public service of a high level of excellence.
  • It marks the end of the summer holiday period and the beginning of the "normal" working year (similar to Labor Day in the US).
While any significant date chosen by the wider community would work for the first two functions, a date in late January or very early February would be needed for the third.

As well, up until the late 1980s, Australia Day was regularly celebrated as a Monday holiday creating a long weekend.  The move of Australia Day to the actual date of 26th January was very controversial when the decision was made.  (What's more utterly Australian than a long weekend, anyway.)  Perhaps we merely need to say that the experiment of moving Australia Day from the last Monday in January to the date of 26 January was a failure, and revert back to the older practice of a Monday holiday. 


  1. well put, its a shame federation was 1st jan, that would have been a much better day to celebrate australia day (in my opinion)

  2. Yes, particularly as it's the one anniversary that would be regarded as non-divisive. Any other anniversary would be seen as belonging more to one section of the nation than another. My own preference, were there any serious move to change the date of Australia Day (which I wouldn't see happening for quite some time in the present climate), would be to select a non-event-based day such as the second Monday or the third Monday of January, and move the public holiday and the civic events to that day.


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