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Byron Shire
October 4, 2023

What does Australia Day mean?

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The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788, Algernon Talmadge R.A, 1937. State Library of NSW

Another Australia Day. Another divisive polemic about the date, the day, and its meaning. Those who seek to change the date argue that 26 January signifies the beginning of Britain’s invasion of Australia and the violent expropriation of Aboriginal lands.

Those who seek to retain the current Australia Day date often invoke a tradition which parenthesises the uncomfortable details of Australia’s colonial history.

So should the date be changed to help heal the wounds of colonialism and re-make the meaning of Australia Day?

Certainly, 26 January  is profoundly symbolic in Australian history. The date marks the arrival of Arthur Phillip’s penal fleet in Port Jackson. In fact, the First Fleet had arrived in Australia on 20 January 1788, but the original site of Botany Bay was deemed unsuitable. So the fleet moved to Sydney Harbour and raised the flag on January 26. The formal arrival ceremony, however, wasn’t held until 7 February.

This ceremony was largely a re-statement of James Cook’s 1770 British claim on the territory he called Australia. That declaration probably took place on 22 August.

We can reasonably say, therefore, that any of these dates could symbolise the inception of the British colonial claim on Australia.

This claim took place within a broader European interest in the ‘Great Southern Land’. The Dutch mariner William Janszoon had already visited Australia in 1606. He had been followed by Spanish, French, and possibly Portuguese explorers.

A French expedition, specifically, claimed the territory in 1772. The French vessel La Perouse sailed into Botany Bay on 24 January, 1788, remaining there for six weeks.

Britain, however, was the first European nation to experiment with a formal occupation. Despite the symbolic inflation of this event, Phillip’s encampment in Sydney Cove was never stated to be the beginnings of a full-scale invasion. The settlement was, at best, tentative.

For example, Phillip’s request for tradesmen and a larger civil administration were rejected by the Home Office.


Some historians have argued that the settlement had long-term strategic purposes, mostly to forestall the interest of other European powers. Nevertheless, most of the discussion around the settlement focused on its value as a penal colony.

Industrialisation had created mass poverty, social desperation, and an epidemic of petty crime that strained the British penal system to breaking point. As with other British penal colonies, the Sydney settlement was designed to relieve Britain’s overcrowded jails.

An invasion and mass occupation were never discussed in Arthur Phillip’s instructions. Moreover, the instructions expressed something of a rising mood of British humanism that would ultimately contribute to the abolition of slavery and the significant political reforms of 1832 and 1867.

Modest as it may sound today, this same nascent humanism was inscribed into the revision of Phillip’s instructions. For example, the original term ‘savages’ was replaced by ‘natives’ who must be ‘protected’ and treated with ‘kindness’.

Phillip’s period as colonial administrator largely adhered to these instructions. In fact, the real horrors of colonial rule only began with the arrival of free settlers on 16 January, 1793 – just a few weeks after Arthur’s return to England. This date, more than 26 January, 1788, marks the beginnings of territorial expansion and the violence of invasive occupation.

Establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on Australia Day, 26 January 1972.
From left Michael Anderson, Billie Craigie, Bert Williams and Tony Coorey.
Photo by Noel Hazard, courtesy SEARCH Foundation and State Library of NSW.

Day of Mourning

This era of free-settler expansion is marked by massacre, injustice, disease, exclusion, oppression, and cultural degradation.

Through this period, and even after Federation, there is no consensus date to signify an ‘Australia Day’. This changes in 1838 with the decision to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet on 26 January.

In order to counter these celebrations the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA) declared this date The Day of Mourning.

This original Indigenous-White polemic fortified the disparate contentions that have characterised Australia’s history and broader efforts to form a cohesive national identity and culture. While it’s rarely acknowledged, the formation of an Australia Day explicated these tensions and the deeper national psyche.

This ‘national unconscious’ is shaped by guilt on the one hand, and an over-assertive, even belligerent, nationalism on the other.

Is it about a date?

Either way, the formation of a consensus Australia Day and its expression as a public holiday from 1994 has drawn this deeper cultural polemic out into the open.

So the difficulty remains. Is there any Australia Day date that could by-pass the deep offence of colonial invasion? Is there any date that would not offend Indigenous Australians?

January 1 has been suggested, the date in 1901 of Australia’s first national parliament.

Unfortunately, January is also a month in which some of the most heinous colonial crimes have been perpetrated against Aborigines.

New Year’s Day in 1856, for example, is marked by the murder of innumerable Aboriginal Australians amidst what is now known as the Raglan massacres.

So perhaps it’s not the date that needs to change but the ways in which Australia Day is conceived and symbolised?

Leaving aside the date, a national day is designed to bring all Australians together in celebration of the security, opportunities, and affluence that are endowed by a democratic state.

Unfortunately, such celebrations obscure the treacherous details of this artifice of togetherness. In particular, a simple, celebratory national day obscures the hierarchies that underscore this national affluence. These hierarchies are constructed over the blood and suffering of others, past and present.


An artificial national day also obscures the profound violence that has been inflicted on other species and the country’s natural life systems themselves.

So, a more profound national day should encourage reflection on this suffering. It should be a Day of Mourning, not only for Indigenous Australians but all the beings whose blood has been spilled through the formation and progress of this nation.

These reflections, however, shouldn’t be a manacle to despair. Rather, our reflections should take us into new ways of thinking about ourselves and the land we now occupy.

That is, we should look for reconciliation beyond the polemic.

The 26 January date is as good and as bad as any other. But we need to take our mourning and reflection seriously. Close the shops. Stall the consumer frenzy. Consider who we are and how we have come to this. Consider the Indigenous people and their suffering.

If we can do this in a morning, then the afternoon could be a time to restore our sense of mutual belonging and mutual responsibility. Dance. Parade. Sing. Play sport. Turn on the lights.

But do it within an acknowledgement of our past and present fallibilities. Consider nation through the prism of a better future.

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  1. Well, one thing is for sure and a fact. Australia Day does NOT mean what the painting of raising the flag says it means.
    The facts are depicted in the Book “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes.
    The story has to come from Captain Arthur Philip’s log.
    On January 26, after lunch Captain Arthur Philip set sail in the afternoon and travelled north from La Perouse at Botany Bay and by 3pm they had sailed into what they had described as the most beautiful harbour they had ever seen. It was the beauty of Sydney Harbour that made Australia Day. The beauty was logged in the captains log book. This was the place they decided to stay and land, not Botany Bay. By 4pm they came to a place where a small stream was flowing into the Harbour. The Famous Tank Stream, fresh water, so they pulled ashore at Farm Cove and unloaded some provisions and surveyed the land.
    The next day they set to and cleared all the bush and cut down trees on the shore and made huts and unloaded all the provisions and unloaded the convicts in chains.
    All that work took then a fortnight. It was not until February 7, that the British Flag was hoisted upon a pole and a few words were said to proclaim the Land in honour of the king of England as New South Wales.

  2. Nothing like a few facts to make us think. Thanks to the Lewis’s and Emily Stewart
    Why not make it the last weekend in January as suggested by many including a Herald economics journalist?
    Another long week end like it used to be pre 1994.

  3. Australia was not named by Lieutenant James Cook but by Mathew Flinders. La Perouse was not the name of the French ship. The Captain of the vessel was La Perouse. The late MP., Tim Fisher, suggested that the last Friday in January could be the Australia Day holiday. This would give us a summer long weekend to celebrate as Australians. This would eliminate a mid week celebration & perhaps suit our Aboriginal citizens.

  4. It would be better if Australia day was linked to the Mabo case decision or the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal issues: “The second question of the 1967 Australian referendum of 27 May 1967, called by the Holt Government, related to Indigenous Australians. Voters were asked whether to give the Federal Government the power to make special laws for Indigenous Australians in states,[1] and whether in population counts for constitutional purposes to include all Indigenous Australians.[2][3][4][5] The term “the Aboriginal Race” was used in the question.[a]
    The amendments to the Constitution were overwhelmingly endorsed, winning 90.77% of votes cast and having majority support in all six states.[8] The Bill became an Act of Parliament on 10 August 1967.[7]
    The 67 referendum was seen at the time as a major advance in ending legal discrimination against Aborigines.
    Alternatively perhaps we could perhaps ask Aborigines what they would would prefer as an alternative to Australia Day/

  5. Change of dates conversation seems to be a witch hunt and complete distraction from admission of the inherent sadness that resulted for many. The damage is done… but not to anyone alive today.. nor by anyone alive today.
    Today’s issues must be dealt with by today’s Australia.

    • No damage done to anyone alive today? I can’t agree with that assessment. There are many still alive today who were forcibly removed from their families by the entrenched power of the invaders’ rule. The ongoing hangover of dispossession and colonisation can be seen in the unacceptable gaps in life expectancy, health outcomes, opportunity and power distribution etc. This is inherent sadness that is still very much the present.

      Suggesting there is something wrong with the salt in the wound that celebrating this day represents, is not a witch hunt.

      • The stolen generations has resulted in intergenerational trauma, trauma, that is recognised by medicos. The failures in Closing the Gap is ongoing fuel that is the history of treatment of our black sisters and brothers.

  6. I like the suggestion of the Lewes’s. Jan 26. Mourn in the morning. Later break bread, dances and parades of surrender and reconciliation in the afternoon. And celebrating our ongoing awakening to truth, practical reconcilation, and the opening to shared respect and joy.

  7. The establishment of an horrific “Dickinson era” English penal colony on the east coast of New Holland is not something any Nation should celebrate as any sort of National day, it’s absurd, it’s insulting?
    For now the only day that can ever be Australia day is when the Commonwealth of Australia was proclaimed, on the 1st of January 1901. When all the former colonies became the one united country of Australia, “GET IT”?
    And until Australia becomes a republic with it’s own real elected head of State and own real flag, of those united Australian States, we will just go through these now ridiculous and deeply divided motions every year. Watching these last few pathetic surviving monarchist of yesteryear, like Abbott, Howard and the rest, attempting to keep Australia, British, because when you open your eyes up, look at the facts of the real story of Australia, that is what is irrefutably, really happening at present?

  8. “In the evening of this day (26th January 1788) the whole of the party that came round in the Supply
    were assembled at the point where they had first landed in the morning (where the Opera House now stands), and on
    which a flag-staff had been purposely erected and an union jack displayed, when the
    marines fired several vollies; between which the governor and the officers who
    accompanied him drank the healths of his Majesty and the Royal Family, and
    success to the new colony. The day, which had been uncommonly fine, concluded
    with the safe arrival of the Sirius and the convoy from Botany Bay, — thus
    terminating the voyage with the same good fortune that had from its
    commencement been so conspicuously their friend and companion.”
    Collins, David “An Account of the English Colony in New
    South Wales”, Chapter1. A good read for those interested in late Australian history.
    btw the claim at the official ceremony (7th Feb 1788) is as follows from the same reference
    “As soon as the hurry and tumult necessarily attending the disembarkation had a
    little subsided, the governor caused his Majesty’s commission, appointing him to be
    his captain-general and governor in chief in and over the territory of New South
    Wales and its dependencies, to be publicly read, together with the letters patent for
    establishing the courts of civil and criminal judicature in the territory, the extent of
    which, until this publication of it, was but little known even among ourselves. It
    was now found to extend from Cape York, (the extremity of the coast to the
    northward,) in the latitude of 20° 37′ South, to the South Cape, (the southern
    extremity of the coast,) in the latitude of 43° 39′ South; and inland to the westward
    as far as 135° of East longitude, comprehending all the islands adjacent in the
    Pacific Ocean, within the latitudes of the above-mentioned capes.”
    And I guess we can include NZ in that – but not WA, that was claimed later.

    • It might be a good read but is it true?
      As they had not unloaded the ships it is illogical to raise the flag.
      They are putting the cart before the horse
      And if they had already raised the flag on January 26, why did they also do it in a large official fashion on February 7?
      To raise the flag for England is official whether done in a big way or small way.

      • It’s David Collins’ recollection of the event. (see the link). It may also have been prompted by La Perouse turnng up in Botany Bay at the same time they were leaving for Port Jackson.

    • “….Victory Day….”, stirring or what. Our black sisters and brother are still here, 60,000 plus years ongoing, they have survived despite the best attempts to wipe them out. In a perverse sort of way that they still here is a ‘victory’ for our black sisters and brothers. I doubt they much interested in a week long party.

  9. given the festering wounds left by the british, i’d vote for celebrating australia day on the anniversary of federation day, which marks the parting of ways from the british, and the birth of real australia… in any case, india already celebrates its national day on the 26th…

  10. Forget about a tokenistc day invented to unite the nation for 1 day out of 365 just so some people can feel like the are apart of something bigger than themselves and as for reconcilliation ask the native American indians 400 plus years in to their process how its going and our local mob is only just over 200 they have a long way to go iam sure, but the real questions needed to be asked is what does Australia mean what does Australia stand for and where are we going?? i dont celebrate Australia day or pay respect on Anzac day because of our multiple involvements in illegal wars the locking up of refugees from the wars we have inserted ourselves in and the creation of island detention centres the fact that we have allowed this society to devolve into of a society of renters and consumers my list of complaints is long so to be short i cannot celebrate a country that in my 44 years of life has been a complete dissapointment a country that continually pissess in the wind.

  11. Australia Day is a day to celebrate the achievements of the Australian people. It is also a day to remember the sacrifices made by Australians in wars and other conflicts.


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