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January 26th; Australia Day/Invasion Day/Survival Day has been a long-battled date for the national celebration of our country. January 26th marks the date when Captain Arthur Phillip raised the British flag at Sydney Cove, an indication that Britain was taking formal possession of New South Wales. For Indigenous people, this day marks the beginning of ongoing colonial violence, discrimination and trauma. It’s a day for mourning and commemorating survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  As such, it’s a date that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around Australia do not feel inclined to celebrate or included in the occasion. 

Australia, as it is formally recognised internationally, is a nation that is nearly 250 years old. Australia, as recognised by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, and others, is known to be between 40,000-60,000 years old, and home to the oldest continuous culture on Earth. Changing the date not only would create a national day that includes everyone but could also help us as a nation to celebrate and take pride in the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and celebrate the country that existed before first contact and continues today.

Polls relating to a potential date change show contrasting results across multiple demographics, what is clear from this research is that within our communities, we are divided over whether or not to change the date of Australia Day. As people that work in communities we need to be mindful of this and explore the topic with sensitivity. How can we create spaces in which we can have respectful debates and protect the psychological safety of others? Many local government areas in Melbourne have chosen not to celebrate on January 26th. With the theme of 2020s NAIDOC week being ‘Always was, always will be’ and increasing number of councils taking steps towards alternative celebrations, there is movement within Australia to actively work towards creating a day, a celebration, that is more inclusive of all cultures, acknowledging the true experience of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

In conversation with Aboriginal people students, here’s some verbatim quotes:

  • “Why would you celebrate a day that took our people by surprise and stole their land? … It’s just unfair.”
  • “They never used to celebrate Australia Day on Jan 26th, they only started celebrating the holiday in 1994. It used to be on numerous different days.”
  • “I used to protest this on invasion day  … but I can’t get arrested anymore.”

Why some communities want the date to remain:

Contrary to those calling to change the date, for many, celebrating Australia on January 26th is an opportunity to celebrate the good in Australia, and provides an opportunity to bring communities together. In many local government areas, people are formally recognised as Australian citizens through public ceremonies and family gatherings.  As such, it’s an anniversary they would like maintained as it holds pride of place in their family and their life story. 

Some feel concerned that there will never be an ideal date, and that, rather than becoming fixated on the date, that the focus should instead be on the values of Australia, the diverse communities and the progress that Australia has made as a nation. Some believe changing the date allows for modern Australian’s to be blamed for the actions of their colonial ancestors, and there are others that believe that at some point, we simply must move on. It must be recognised that colonialism’s impact on Indigenous people continues today and for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, ‘Invasion’ is not an isolated event that occurred in the past, but something these communities face each day.  

Why some people are undecided:

For others, it’s simply a matter of acknowledging that changing the date doesn’t change what happened, and that, rather than focusing on just the events of January 26th, celebrating the birth of the Australian nation on any day still effectively represents the dispossession of the Aboriginal people. Often these people are involved in working with long term issues in the community, and, rather than fixating on date, feel that the focus should be on fixing social and economic issues within communities. 

In the engagement world, we know that the key to discussing complex issues is ensuring that all voices have a chance to be heard. So what can we do to ensure voices are heard?

  1. Learn: Find out more about the colonisation of Australia, and try to draw on as many different sources and voices that you can. History can be framed through the lens of those who tell it, so true learning relies on listening to multiple voices, both past and present. 
  2. Make space for truth telling: Acknowledge the Country you are on, use traditional place names and have honest conversations with friends and family.
  3. Delve deeper: Find out about Aboriginal history in your local area, or the area that you’re working in. Who are the traditional landowners? What is their connection to Country? What’s their take on the 26th and why? You may be surprised how views vary between communities. 
  4. Connect: Making connections is an important first step to forming an ongoing relationship. Meet with traditional landowners, local elders from a variety of cultural backgrounds, young people, families, businesses. Find out what matters to them. What kind of event could you facilitate so that all voices are heard in the future and that there is an inclusive culture in your community? 
  5. Listen: Take the time to listen, ask questions and take on board what people are saying. Research has shown that Australians identify with 270+ different ancestries, each contributing to the Australian identity and way of life as a whole. The topic of changing the date for many is one that elicits a passionate response, so it’s important to ensure that people feel that they have been heard. 
  6. Share: Take the time to share what you have learnt with others. Often we can find ourselves operating in silos, and only hearing certain points of view. Consider different ways that your findings could be presented to the community, such as social media, community forums or a variety of publications.

Some resources to support your decision:

Conversation Co

Conversation Co proudly acknowledges and celebrates First Peoples of Australia and their ongoing strength in upholding some of the world's oldest living cultures. We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands throughout what is now Victoria – where we live, conduct pop-ups, and engage with our communities – and pay our respects to their Elders, past and present. Conversation Co acknowledges First Peoples' sovereignty has never been ceded. The strength, resilience and pride of First Peoples, their cultures, communities and identities continue to grow and thrive today despite the impact of colonisation and ongoing experiences of racism.

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