A National Day should be the anniversary of a central event in the life of the nation, a day when we all come together and celebrate our nation’s shared values – a celebration of the start of our nation’s journey, usually the attainment of independence, or some other significant national milestone.
Other nations ‘national days’ feature heroes who stormed the Bastille, or trudged on the Long March, or wrote the Declaration of Independence and fought for its implementation. Australia has a handful of bewildered felons, dumped on an alien shore.
There is a considerable amount of public confusion about what actually happened here on 26 January 1788.
It is of course not the day humans first arrived on the continent. Aboriginal Australians came more than 40,000 years ago, long before calendars and dates were invented.
It is not the day Europeans first made landfall on the continent. That was the Dutch on 26 February 1606.
It is not the day the continent was claimed as a possession by Great Britain. That was by Captain Cook on 22 August 1770. And Cook only claimed the eastern half of the continent. The western half was not claimed for Britain until 1828.
It is not the day the British first tried to settle here. That was 18 – 20 January 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay and started to build a settlement.
It is not the day Sydney Cove was first discovered by Europeans, named after a British politician and selected as the next site for the convict settlement. That was 21 January 1788.
It is not the day Governor Arthur Phillip raised the flag and formally annexed the colony of New South Wales for Great Britain by reading a proclamation before the assembled convicts and guards. That was 7 February 1788.
It is not the day Australia achieved self-government. That was on various dates depending on the state you lived in – in the eastern states during the 1850s and in Western Australia not until 1890.
It is not the day we became a united independent nation. That was 1 January 1901. We could legitimately celebrate “Australia Day” on 1 January, but unfortunately it is already a ‘Day’ – New Year’s Day – and already a holiday, so it wouldn’t seem like much of a celebration.
What is 26 January then? It is the day the First Fleet decamped from Botany Bay to Sydney Cove for a second go at settlement, thus effectively founding Sydney. So 26 January can be legitimately claimed as ‘Sydney Day’. But Sydney is not Australia. The elevation of Sydney Day to Australia Day might have been seen as one of the greatest con tricks that New South Wales has played on the rest of the country, except that, as we shall see, most of the momentum for a 26 January Australia Day came not from NSW but from Victoria.
Australia’s National Day has had a chequered history. As the official NSW Government website puts it: “The tradition of having Australia Day as a national holiday on 26 January is a recent one. Not until 1935 did all the Australian states and territories use that name to mark that date. Not until 1994 did they begin to celebrate Australia Day consistently as a public holiday on that date.” For most of our history, the Australian States each had their own ‘foundation day’ celebrations.
What most Australians don’t understand are the questionable underpinnings of the gradual establishment of Sydney’s Anniversary Day as ‘Australia Day’ nationwide. Firstly, in 1931 the Victoria Labor Government wanted to give the ‘workers’ a summer long weekend in January. They noted that Sydney’s 26 January Anniversary Day was at the right time of the year so they made the closest Monday to 26 January a holiday and called it the ‘Australia Day Weekend’. The fact that a day linked to 26 January became an annual summer holiday in Australia’s second most populous state helped considerably to extend the idea beyond NSW.
Secondly, and even more dubiously, there was a push from the then very active Australian Natives Association (ANA), which, ironically, the indigenous natives of Australia were not permitted to join. The ANA, whose membership was limited to white males born in Australia and whose base was mainly in Victoria, was looking to consolidate its racist creed that white (mainly British-descended) males were the pre-eminent inheritors of the Australian continent. The tenuous but already existing Australia Day tag for 26 January was a convenient peg on which to hang their passionate ‘White Australia’ aspirations. They campaigned so effectively for 26 January to be recognised nation-wide that for many years it was actually called ‘ANA Day’ in many parts of the country.
Unfortunately, it was not an appropriate choice for a national day for at least four further reasons. In the first place, founding the colony is not something ‘we’ did as Australians; it is something ‘they’ did – the British – so Australians can hardly take any credit for it.
In the second place, it was not a heroic or even a very significant action, but the ‘implementation of an administrative decision to move some convicts’ from one place to another.
In the third place, there was nowhere called ‘Australia’ in 1788. The Dutch called the continent ‘New Holland’ and Governor Phillip, following Cook, called it ‘New South Wales’. The first person to promote calling this continent ‘Australia’ was Matthew Flinders in 1804, after his heroic circumnavigation. But his suggestion was not officially adopted by the British Admiralty, the arbiter of such things, until 1824.
And finally, yes, when the first British intruders arrived here in 1788 and so cavalierly took control, there were already people living here. Moreover, recent studies have revealed that the level of civilisation the indigenous people achieved was much more substantial than we have previously been led to believe. They were genuine agrarians and worthy custodians of the land. Indigenous Australians are as much Australians as anyone, but 26 January is even less a day of celebration for them than it is for the rest of us.
Unfortunately, there is no pre-eminent alternative. In 1902 an attempt was actually made to celebrate 1 January as our ‘National Day’, but the idea gained no traction and was not tried again. In its more radical days, The Bulletin magazine campaigned for 3 December, the date of the 1854 Eureka Stockade, to be Australia’s National Day. But this day has what little significance it can muster only within Victoria.
Meanwhile, many Australians are crying out for a meaningful and profound Australia Day that we can all commit to. Perhaps one day we will be fully independent and become a republic. Or perhaps we will finally sign treaties with the Aboriginal Nations. The date of either of those events would be worthy of being celebrated as a National Day that signifies something to all Australians.
Most nations celebrate their national day on the day they achieved independence, the day they became a nation in their own right. The overwhelming majority of them achieved independence by throwing off a colonial power, that is, they ‘stopped’ being a colony.
Australia is the only nation on earth that celebrates its National Day on or about the day it ‘started’ being a colony. There is something rather sad and perhaps even pathological about this.
Ian and Tim Robinson are fourth generation patriotic Australians born and bred in Victoria who want a meaningful National Day that they can really celebrate.