HOLDING Australia Day on January 26 is a relatively recent development in the nation’s history, and it only became a national public holiday in 1994.
In the early colonial days, January 26 celebrations were mostly held in New South Wales, commemorating the date in 1788 when Arthur Phillip and a contingent of royal marines landed on Eora Nation land and announced they were claiming it for the King of the United Kingdom.
The first fleets had arrived a bit earlier, but did some recce before finding a good spot to land.
Mr Phillip’s decision to have marines accompany him on his first steps ashore was portentous.
Their mission was “to form a military establishment on shore (not only for the protection of the settlement, if requisite, against the natives, but for the preservation of good order)”.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert’s letter to WA councils describes that date as “a day of mourning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” that “started over 200 years of dispossession and oppression for our First peoples”.
She wrote “Australia is a country rich with diversity and culture, and it should be celebrated on a day when everyone can come together. January 26 is not that day”.
The celebration date (and even the name) of Australia Day has changed many times since. According to the Australia Day Council, in the early 1800s Sydneysiders celebrated “First Landing Day” with a booze-up on January 26. It was proclaimed an annual public holiday in NSW in 1838.
It took until 1888 for other states to get on board, and even then only tentatively, with representatives from Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland, WA, SA and NZ heading to Sydney to celebrate “Foundation Day”.
In the 1930s, the Australian Natives Association (referring to people of European ancestry born here) started campaigning to celebrate Australia Day with a long weekend around January 26, but it wasn’t until 1935 that all the states and territories eventually agreed on that date.
Early on it was recognised as a mournful occasion for Aboriginal people. The Australia Day Council states that In 1938 while state premiers gathered in Sydney to celebrate, Aboriginal leaders met there to protest their mistreatment and to seek full citizen rights.
In 1994 it was officially established as a public holiday, after the states and territories all agreed in 1988 to celebrate Australia Day on January 26. It was around the time of the 1988 agreement that some Aboriginal leaders started referring to the date as “Invasion Day”.
by DAVID BELL