Australia Day felt a little different in Perth this year, with the sky works called off due to COVID fears.
Next year, we are set to return to “normal” celebrations, after the City of Perth made the call to bring the sky works back in 2022.
Politicians and business leaders have hailed the event, promising it will be bigger than ever, encompassing the values of reflect, respect, and celebration of our country.
But recent discussions of next year’s Australia Day events have left out one very big, very blak elephant in the room.
That elephant is the thousands of Indigenous Australians across the nation, demanding acknowledgement and symbolic change in this country.
Thousands of protesters united in Perth, Boorloo on the 26th of January this year, to demand that governments change the date of Australia day.
The nation has celebrated on the 26th of January for almost thirty years, but protesters say the date symbolises the beginning of a painful history for First Nations people.
The rally began with speeches by indigenous rights activists, before the group marched through the city, to Langley Park, and then down Riverside drive.
Bibbulman yorga, and custodian of Whadjuk country, Corina Howard, organised the rally despite battling ongoing health conditions. A leader in her community, she has organised several past rallies and is heavily involved in campaigning for land rights and other issues affecting first nations people. She agreed to an interview from her home where she spends several hours a day in bed on dialysis. She said poor health is just one of the many issues her people face in modern Australia, and she wanted this to be a part of the story. She explained the 26th is a key symbolic date that marks great pain for her people.
The protests fell on deaf ears in Canberra. The same day, Scott Morrison voiced his support for keeping Australia Day celebrations on the 26th, saying it was the day our “journey to modern Australia began”.
It is well-known in Australia that Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of convict ships, arrived at Sydney Cove and raised the Union Jack on the 26 January, 1788, signalling the beginning of the British colony.
The question must not be whether the 26th is significant, but whether it is a suitable day for celebration.
As the campaigning by Indigenous groups shows, the day symbolises the beginning of a painful period of history for First Nations people.
The Australia Day Council has taken an interesting position on the history. On the Australia Day website, the organisation acknowledges that the day has long been a “difficult” symbol for many Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people, who see it as a day of “sorrow and mourning.”
It’s campaigns now centre on the ideals of “reflect, respect, celebrate”. The strategy highlights acknowledgement; propelling the idea that the dark side of history can be recognised while celebrations occur on the same day.
But this dark side of history is still not clear, or common knowledge in Australia. The timeline on the Australia Day website gives no reference to the mass killings, rapes, enslavement, attempted genocide or other atrocities that were committed against Indigenous peoples by European colonisers.
Historian and lecturer at Edith Cowan University, Dr. Simon Stevens says the extent of the violence against Indigenous people has been seriously down-played by European re-telling’s of history.
The beginning of change…
Some city councils have moved the date of Australia day celebrations in recent years. They include Yarra City, Darebin and Moreland in Victoria, Flinders Island and Launceston in Tasmania, Byron Shire, and Inner West in New South Wales.
WA’s own City of Fremantle changed the date in 2017, giving celebrations a new name: One Day.
This year’s One Day event happened on Sunday, January 24. A crowd gathered on the sand and steps of Bathers Beach in Fremantle to listen to the words and stories of the elders, who spoke about the painfulness of January 26 and the heartbreaking atrocities committed against First Nations ancestors. Noongar elder, Herbert Bropho (Uncle Herb), appeared on the beach in chains, like the ones used against his ancestors. He spoke about the dark history of Rottnest Island, the mass graves, mere kilometres from where we stood on the shore.
The stories were followed by a smoking ceremony. Each person was invited to be cleansed by the smoke, and shake hands with the elders. Rain began to sprinkle as children and adults alike took turns walking through the smoke. Some people were smiling, others cried.
The ceremony ended with dancing. One by one, brave onlookers stood up to join in, and the whole beach came alive with movement.
As Fremantle shows us, changing the date is something easily done. Brad Pettitt was the mayor of Fremantle when it first changed the date in 2016. He says the decision to change the date came from working together with the Indigenous community members to find ways to come together and be more inclusive. Brad says that before One Day, Australia Day meant two separate events. “You’d have the sky works over here and the survival day concert over there.”
He says changing the date for Fremantle allowed the community to truly come together.
So, if we stop celebrating on the 26th, when should we celebrate? The city of Fremantle has a relaxed stance on the date, celebrating One Day on various dates in recent years. Corina spruiked the idea of May 8, or M8, with mateship a loved value that all Australians can get behind. But, both her and Dr. Simon Stevens made the same point: it doesn’t matter. Pick a day, any day, just not the 26th.
We have 364 days to choose from.
The Australia Day Council, Auspire and the RSL were contacted for comment.