Australia Day - History
quest for the celebration of a united Australian Day
and the parallel search for an 'Australian identity'
and sense of spirit commenced within a few short years
of the First Fleet landing of 1788 and subsequent white
settlement on this island continent.
The following information gives a chronological history
of how settlers and Indigenous Australians have acknowledged,
celebrated and mourned the 26th January since 1788.
the earliest white settlement at the end of the 18th
century, Australians have striven to celebrate a national
day, and in so doing, define what it means to be Australian.
January 26 has traditionally marked the landing of Captain
Arthur Phillip at Port Jackson in present-day Sydney,
thereby claiming Australia for the British Empire. Early
settlers, perhaps naturally, marked the anniversary.
Australia Day has evolved from a small commemorative
New South Wales holiday into a major national celebration.
Though it has often been criticised, it remains the
most inclusive celebration of a national day in Australia,
expressing the national diversity which has become such
an important part of the Australian national character.
Australia Day today celebrates diversity and tolerance
in Australian society. Whereas once it celebrated the
staunchly British nature of Australian society (or was
disparaged for this approach), it now embraces multicultural
Australia, including all ethnic backgrounds, racial
differences and political viewpoints.
January 1788 saw Captain Arthur Phillip take ‘formal
possession’ of the Colony of New South Wales.
Phillip also became Governor of the colony, which was
founded on the harsh grounds at Port Jackson. Slowly,
a modern British society, very much based on the distinctions
between convicts and settlers, developed.
fledgling colony very soon began to mark the anniversary
of 26 January 1788 with formal dinners and informal
celebrations. Manning Clark notes that on 26 January
1808, the 'anniversary of the foundation of the colony'
was observed in the traditional manner with 'drinking
and merriment'. John Macarthur senior had ensured his
soldiers were amply supplied with liquor, bonfires were
blazing and private houses illuminated.
1820, Australia was beginning to look prosperous and
sentiments of Australian patriotism were being expressed
at gatherings of ex-convicts. The sense of belonging
to a new nation must have been encouraged in 1817 when
Governor Macquarie recommended the adoption of the name
'Australia' for the entire continent instead of New
article in the Sydney Gazette on February 1, 1817 records
a typical anniversary dinner that was held on the 27
January in the house of Isaac Nichols, a respected emancipist
and Australia's first Postmaster. Similar dinners are
described involving William Charles Wentworth and friends
on 26 January 1825 and 1828. A catchcry and traditional
toast was born: 'to the land, boys, we live in'. The
first stirrings of a kind of patriotism were being felt:
Australian identity would evolve over two centuries
(and continues to evolve). The colony was a small society
of cliques, extreme social judgement, rigid class-lines,
gossip and ambition. The feeling of isolation was, in
some cases, viewed as an advantage. Australians of European
descent began to see themselves as unique
The first official celebrations were held in 1818, marking
the thirtieth anniversary of white settlement. The colony
was firmly British and Imperial. In a show of imperial
strength meant to dazzle the inhabitants, Governor Macquarie
ordered a salute of 30 guns to be fired from the battery
at Dawes Point and in the evening gave a dinner at Government
House for civil and military officers. Mrs Macquarie
hosted the ball which followed.
the early nineteenth century, Foundation Day, as it
was then known, became known for sporting events. But
the growing sense of patriotism was being expressed
in other ways. Charles Tompson, reputed to be our first
Australian-born poet and the son of a transportee, was
moved to compose eight stanzas of tribute to his native
country for 26 January 1824 collected in his "Wild
Notes from the Lyre of a Native Minstrel" and entitled
"A Song, for January 26, 1824: being the XXXVI
anniversary of the colonization of New South Wales".
Tompson identified Australia in its landscape, but also
had Neptune, the king of the seas, predict Australia
brightest gem in Albion's crown
While the prolific bosom pours Earth's richest gifts
in lavish showers'
Australia Day, or Foundation Day, as it was then
known was described in the stirring last stanza:
is the joy-inspiring day
That gave these blessings to our lot
Then let us share the social rites
Join hands, all malice be forgot!
This little star, once marked by none
Now shines a bright - a BLAZING SUN!
Tompson was undoubtedly one of that section of the Australian-born
whom Edward Smith Hall, proprietor and publisher of
The Monitor, had in mind when he wrote in 1821 'the
circumstances of the parents of the most of them having
come to the country in bondage, so far from making them
humble, causes them to be the proudest people in the
world … the circumstance of being free is felt
by them with a strength bordering on fierce enthusiasm'.
different commemorative event was held in the summer
of 1836 when a group of seafaring Sydney friends decided
to celebrate the founding of their new nation with a
sailing regatta. The Australia Day Regatta, originally
the Anniversary Regatta, is still held on Sydney Harbour
on 26 January each year and has become the oldest continuous
regatta in the world. Not only symbolic of Australian
affinity of the water, the regatta has been a popular
and well-attended event throughout the year.
years after Phillip landed, in 1838, a number of celebratory
events were organised and the first public holiday ever
marked in Australia was announced for 26 January in
that year. This marked the beginning of a tradition
which has lasted to the present, an annual public holiday
on or around 26 January. A less common tradition which
it also started was the marking of significant anniversaries.
The centennial, sesquicentennial and bicentennial celebrations
outdid each other in patriotic splendour and celebration.
the Australia Day in the present, in distinct contrast
to the mainly private and somewhat elitist anniversary
dinners in previous years, 26 January 1838, the fiftieth
anniversary of the landing, became a 'day for everyone'
with the harbour foreshores crowded and many sailing
vessels participating in races and competitions. Crackers
and rockets ended the day's exuberant festivities.
the centenary of Phillip's landing in 1888, Australia's
population numbered almost three million and many changes
had taken place over the previous fifty years. Gold
had been discovered in the 1850s bringing great wealth
and immigration, and New South Wales had become self-governing
this wealth and prosperity was certainly not equally
spread - the incoming NSW government of 1886 had inherited
severe financial problems and over eleven thousand 'centennial
parcels' of rations were distributed to Sydney's poor
on 26 January 1888 - the first centenary of white settlement
was celebrated with great enthusiasm.
the exception of Adelaide, all colonial capitals had
declared Anniversary Day 1888 a public holiday and celebrations
took place throughout the colonies. Ceremonies, parades,
exhibitions, fireworks, banquets, church services and
regattas were commonplace and 50,000 people watched
the Governor Lord Carrington unveil a statue in honour
of Queen Victoria. A march of thirteen thousand trade
unionists culminated in the laying of the foundation
stone for a new Trades Hall and many religious services
Park, Sydney was formally reserved for public use on
26 January 1888. In Melbourne there was a Centennial
International Exhibition which remained open from August
1888 to February 1889, attracting nearly two million
visitors. The centenary was also marked by numerous
historical publications and commemorative volumes as
well as souvenirs and other centenary ephemera.
were beginning to talk widely about other political
questions of the day, including the move towards Federation.
However, despite the pride in achievement celebrated
in January 1888 and the moves towards a united nation,
there were no doubts about the 'continuing loyalty of
the four million Australians to the mother country'.
A description of the unveiling of Queen Victoria's statue
included the comment 'the mood was British, the crowd
1889 to 1938
1871 the Australian Natives' Association had been formed
in Victoria. This was the first Australian Friendly
Society and its motto was Advance Australia. The group,
which had particular influence in the period between
the 1890s to around 1914, had strong nationalistic aspirations
and its members included Edmund Barton (to become our
first Prime Minister), Alfred Deakin (Australia's second
Prime Minister) and Sir Isaac Isaacs (our first Australian-born
Governor-General). The ANA provided sickness, medical
and funeral cover. Its membership was limited to native-born
men, but it threw off the secrecy and ritual of British
ANA grew rapidly and branches were formed across Victoria
and in all states as well as a branch in London. By
the 1880s, the group was making a nation-wide impact.
The Australian Natives' Association supported many issues
including afforestation, an Australian-made goods policy,
water conservation, Aboriginal welfare, the celebration
of proper and meaningful citizenship ceremonies following
the increased levels of migration after World War II
and the adoption of the wattle as the national floral
emblem in 1912. However, some of their strongest support
was lent to the move towards Federation and a united
Commonwealth (along with the Federation League), the
celebration of a unified national day and the calling
of that day Australia Day.
Victoria, ANA Day was celebrated on the 26 January,
but not all sections of the community approved. The
conservative Australian Natives Association did not
initially get universal support. In New South Wales,
the Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Moran, suggested Australia
Day as an alternative to Empire Day. W A Holman, Premier
of New South Wales, agreed with the idea. The Worker
newspaper, organ of much trade unionism in New South
Wales, vehemently disagreed with any form of celebration
on 26 January. On Australia Day 1911, it stated that
while it had a deep regard for the past, the landing
of Phillip was not worth celebrating. Rather, the election
of the Labor Party in 1910 (the first elected Labor
Government in Australian history) was a far more commendable
achievement. The Worker concluded,
'What of the future? A thousand barriers to progress
have been swept from our path; a thousand still remain.
The work is not completed; it is in fact only beginning.
As those men in 1788 claimed Australia in the name
of England, we in 1911 claim the land in the name
of Labor. Let the British tie remain … Labor
works to a practical goal and her great concern is
the well-being of the whole people. As the early settlers
faced a wilderness of forest and plain, we, their
sons, are called upon to face a wilderness of traditional
evils and deeply-rooted wrongs. Our work is different
in nature, but the spirit in which it must be performed
is the same. Let us see to it that the second century
marks as great an advance as the first…'
for the 150th anniversary of white settlement in 1938
had commenced in NSW in 1936 with the formation of a
Celebrations Council and the Sesquicentenary year became
an important year for celebrations. NSW was the only
state to abandon the traditional long weekend and the
annual Anniversary Day public holiday was held on the
day - Wednesday 26 January.
general public appeared to have embraced the 150th anniversary
with great enthusiasm. In Sydney, events commenced on
18 January with a ceremony to celebrate the arrival
of Captain Phillip at Botany Bay. A similar ceremony
was held on the 21 January at Camp Cove. Both were attended
by the Governor Lord Wakehurst, the Premier Bertram
Stevens, military chiefs and assorted dignitaries. 26
January 1938 in NSW featured many major events around
the state and in Sydney on and around the Harbour. The
'March of Nationhood', an extremely successful parade
of over sixty motorised floats passed through the streets
of Sydney to the Showground watched by almost one million
people. Streets and buildings were decorated and the
city was alive with colour and excitement, decorated
with bunting, flags and illuminations.
1938 sesquicentenary celebrations focused on white middle-class
British Australia. A re-enactment of Philip's landing
was performed. The script showed the attitudes held
by many at the time. The only part Aborigines were to
play in the re-enactment was a corroboree at the beginning.
Showing typical insensitivity to the varying cultures
of Aboriginality, the Aborigines were imported from
Western New South Wales. No reason for not using local
Aborigines has survived. The script showed no contact
between Aboriginal the British culture. Their purely
symbolic role ended with the arrival of the British.
26 January 1788 was given an esoteric or mystical significance.
A crewman states, "I won't forget this day: seems
to fill a gap in my knowledge." The crewman is
unaware of what exactly has happened, but it is highly
significant. It is later revealed that a 'sprig of Empire'
had been planted in this strange new land. Australia
was hence part of a growing organism - the British Empire.
Though the ordinary seamen know something special has
happened (even if they don't know exactly what it is)
and Philip's officers are dubious, the wisdom of Philip's
choice is justified, as the 1938 celebrations attest.
Convicts are not represented at all. As Paul Ashton
writes in his book Waving the Waratah, considerable
public criticism and the resignation of two committee
members had followed the decision by the Celebrations
Council to 'sanitise the historical components of the
celebration' and to rewrite history for 'mass consumption'.
Even the conservative Sydney Morning Herald felt that
convicts could have been represented 'without making
them unduly conspicuous'. The settlement at Port Jackson
is British, respectable, middle-class and white. Not
all, however, believed this view of Australia.
Several hours before the re-enactment on the morning
of 26 January, Aboriginal activists met to hold a 'Day
of Mourning' conference aimed at securing national citizenship
and equal status for Aborigines. A manifesto titled
Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights was distributed by the
committee formed to organise the protest and soon after
Australia Day 1938 the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen
Rights was formed in Sydney.
Outside Sydney, there were many celebrations and events
in the bush for the Sesquicentenary - picnics, balls,
musical performances and the odd fireworks show. A significant
amount of ephemera remains from the celebrations - invitations,
pamphlets, program brochures, tourist leaflets from
large regional towns and musical, art and literary competitions,
indicating the number of events that took place around
New South Wales. However, in both city and country,
unlike the 1988 Bicentenary, little in the way of permanent
structures and reminders were created during 1938. Nevertheless,
the euphoria of the 150th anniversary celebrations was
maintained as February 1938 saw the staging of the British
Empire Games in Australia for the first time. Of the
seventy events held in Sydney, Australia won twenty-four,
far ahead of her nearest rival Canada with thirteen.
1939 to 1988
The Second World War shifted the focus of
Australians from Australia Day to the more sombre ANZAC
day. In the years leading up to war, and even during
the war, the Australian Natives Association had been
working patiently towards the unified naming and dating
of our national day. In 1946, following their concerted
efforts and with the support of similar movements, the
Commonwealth Government and all States and Territories
finally agreed to observe the same national day - 26
January - and to call that day Australia Day.
Australian citizenship became law in 1949. The waves
of non-British immigration after 1945 led to a new role
for Australia Day, one that celebrated new citizenship
with 'naturalisation' ceremonies. Arthur Calwell, first
Minister for Immigration, had allowed immigrants from
Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean into Australia,
unwillingly and unknowingly starting the first small
steps to a fully multicultural Australia.
1963, the Australia and New Zealand Weekly reported
‘4,500 'New Australians' will become fully-fledged
Australian citizens'. Citizenship ceremonies are still
an integral part of Australia Day celebrations around
the nation with the smallest town or rural village delighted
if they can host a ceremony for even one new Australian
citizen on 26 January.
public holiday mentality of the average Australian for
26 January was deplored by many commentators. In 1957
the Editor of The Educational Magazine, published by
the Victorian Education Department, writes that 'the
celebration of Australia Day, or the comparative lack
of it, has always caused embarrassment both to those
who would like to celebrate and those who would chiefly
like to see that others do'.
existing celebrations for Australia Day continued to
have a largely imperial feel and influence and were
quite formal. The Australia and New Zealand Weekly described
26 January, 1959 in Sydney as a march of 12,000 men,
women and children through the city to the Botanic Gardens,
led by the NSW Mounted Police, the armed services and
sporting personalities. The NSW Governor and Premier
were in attendance for the ceremony which included a
re-enactment of the First Fleet landing.
Sydney celebrations from 1959 to around 1971 were conducted
by a group called the Sydney Committee which also organised
the annual Waratah Festival - a far more expansive affair
than Australia Day. Australia Day ceremonies were typically
formal, with a strong military involvement and the presence
of numerous dignitaries including the Governor, Premier,
Lord Mayor and Service Chiefs. A positive aspect was
the Committee's determination to conduct their events
on 26 January, regardless of the day in the week on
which it fell.
first Australian of the Year, an award given out on
Australia Day, was bestowed on Macfarlane Burnet in
1960. Professor Burnet had won the Nobel Prize that
year for his groundbreaking physics research. Later
recipients of the Australian of the Year were to come
from many backgrounds, though the earliest winners seemed
to be expatriates and recognised overseas. Later winners
were less internationally prominent, but of immense
service to the Australian community.
the sixties, there was scepticism about Australia Day.
Professor Ken Inglis wrote in 1967 that it was a 'contrived
and unpopular ceremony' which was 'followed by popular
enjoyment'. Yet even Professor Inglis saw the need for
such a day, as he hoped it might become a day where
professional historians and amateur historians may meet,
and celebrate Australia's past.
the 1970s, Australian citizenship was redefined with
the concept of multiculturalism. The Whitlam Labor Government
adopted this policy to break the hold of the old White
Australia Policy, which limited the countries and circumstances
from which potential migrants could come to Australia.
This broader approach to citizenship has made Australia
Day the focus of new citizenship. As in the past, Australia
Day was used as the focus for citizenship drives. Rather
than defining citizenship, now Australia Day was to
attract new citizens. The traditional sources of migration
- Europe (particularly England) and other Commonwealth
countries - were taken over by migrants from Asia and
the Middle East. The Minister for Immigration in the
Whitlam Government, Al Grassby, used Australia Day to
exhort migrants to become citizens. On Australia Day
1974, he called on everyone to 'celebrate it by making
someone who is not yet an Australian citizen feel a
member of the family of the Australian nation. Help
them to become a citizen.' A coupon was placed in major
national newspapers on the day which stated proudly,
'Belong to Australia - as a citizen', which Australian
citizens were meant to give to non-citizens living here.
Fraser government continued the citizenship policies
of the Whitlam Government, despite opposition from its
own supporters. On Australia Day, 1976, Malcolm Fraser
triumphantly told a packed Melbourne Myer Bowl that
the days of Anglo-Celtic dominance in Australia were
over. The largely Italian-descended crowd went wild.
1977 to 1986 the official NSW Australia Day ceremony
was conducted by the Festival of Sydney, from 1982 on
behalf of the Australia Day Council of NSW. Pre-1988,
all ceremonies were principally based on the historical
significance of 26 January and involved a Tri-service
Guard, the reading of Captain Phillip's 1788 Proclamation
and the raising of the original Union flag as well as
the Australian flag. In 1979 the National Australia
Day Council was formed. State councils or committees
followed, the Australia Day Council of NSW being formed
in 1981. From its inception, the NSW council encouraged
'grass roots' celebrations, working primarily with the
177 local government authorities in the promotion of
the celebration of Australia Day. However, the Australia
Day public holiday was still held on the Monday closest
to 26 January and to the broad community it was just
26 January 1988, the community was really ready to fulfil
the NSW Bicentennial Council's logo 'Let's Celebrate'
and the world saw a 'spirited and emotional country'
as Australians enjoyed the spectacular events on and
around Sydney Harbour and across the country. In NSW
alone, over 25,000 events took place and an estimated
2.5 million people attended the celebrations in Sydney.
And in 1988, for the first time, a public holiday was
held around the nation on January 26 January. In Sydney
the ships of the First Fleet Re-enactment arrived in
Sydney Harbour. These ships had departed Portsmouth
on the 13 May 1987, arriving in Botany Bay earlier in
January and then finally entering the heads on the morning
of 26 January 1988. On the same day the sail training
ship the Young Endeavour became Britain's Bicentennial
gift to the nation and Sydney Harbour was also host
to a large number of Tall Ships from many nations.
re-enactments of the 1788 landing were almost a prerequisite
for any Australia Day ceremonies. In 1988 however, while
the First Fleet ships staged a re-enactment of the voyage
and subsequent arrival of the original First Fleet in
Sydney Harbour, the NSW government reacted strongly
against the suggestion of a landing re-enactment, stating
they would 'ensure that such a completely insensitive
and politically volatile act did not take place'. An
advertisement was placed in the Sydney Morning Herald
acknowledging the arrival of the First Fleet had led
to the "destruction of Aboriginal society."
The ad, signed by the organiser, Dr. Jonathan King,
also stated, "The way in which Aboriginal society
has been disregarded and almost destroyed since the
arrival of Captain Phillip's fleet must now be recognised.
Their needs must be acknowledged, their protests must
the formal program celebrating 200 years of white settlement,
the Aboriginal community staged a massive march for
'Freedom, Justice and Hope' in Sydney. It was estimated
15000 people attended the march and subsequent rally.
The five-kilometre march began with a mourning corroboree.
White supporters were asked to join the march halfway.
The protests organiser, the Reverend Charles Harris,
called for a national conference to examine ways of
increasing Aboriginal democracy. Reverend Harris suggested
people like Justice Michael Kirby be involved. While
1988 was named a Year of Mourning for Aboriginals, it
was also regarded as a celebration of survival. This
was the most vocal indigenous presence ever felt on
a 26 January.
well as the festive and fun events, the 1988 Bicentennial,
unlike earlier major celebrations in NSW, will be remembered
for leaving a substantial number of very diverse and
useful projects. Funded by a grant system from the NSW
Bicentennial Council, these projects played a significant
role in the participation of regional communities.
1989 to Present
After the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations,
the expectation was that the Australian public would
not continue to observe Australia Day in such style
and with such import. Despite this lack of optimism,
each year since 1988 Australia Day celebrations across
the country have continued to grow in number and stature
and ceremonies have become increasingly appealing to
a broad community audience.
1993, the Australia Day celebrations were closely linked
to Sydney's bid for the 2000 Olympics and in 1994 the
devastating January bushfires were very much a current
issue. In that year, the official Australia Day ceremony
at Darling Harbour honoured representatives from all
the relevant bushfire brigade regions throughout New
South Wales allowing Australians to say 'thank you'
to their firefighting heroes.
still remained separate dates for Australia Day celebrations
in some states. This was despite the increase in community
involvement, the fact that all States and Territories
had recognised the day from 1946 and that Bicentennial
celebrations took place around the country on the same
day, 26 January 1988. It took until 1994 for united
Australia-wide celebrations to take place on 26 January
and national celebrations have been held on the actual
day since that year.
26 January has remained our national day from the time
of Phillip's landing, much discussion has taken place
since the 1800s on the pros and cons of this particular
date. The reasons cited for a change of date have been
varied - historical, practical and most recently, the
desire for reconciliation with our indigenous population.
At the time of writing, the date remains 26 January
and the discussion continues.
Australia Day celebrations are growing each year. In
1996, an estimated 6.5 million Australians participated
in Australia Day activities and recent polls show an
overwhelming proportion of Australians now view the
celebration of our national day as a significant and
important event. In 2002, 7 million people participated
in Australia Day. Australia Day marks both the past
and the future of Australia. Direct celebrations of
the past have subsided. There are fewer re-enactments
of Phillip's landing. In 2002, The Daily Telegraph stated,
"Australia Day has evolved into a much more important
day than it used to be.
Australia Day has become a community day. There are
still formal ceremonies throughout the country - flag
raising, citizenship ceremonies and the presentation
of important community awards such as Citizen and Young
Citizen of the Year, but 26 January has become much
more for the average Australian. Celebrations now include
a strong festive aspect with special events encouraging
the participation of the entire family and all members
of a community. Australia Day Committees involve their
ethnic and indigenous communities, service clubs, sporting
and cultural organisations while local government has
become increasingly supportive. Theatrical performances,
music, sporting events, speech days, multicultural and
indigenous performances are all a major part of Australia
Day. It has been a great innovation that people and
communities get together with government bodies to make
it a specific celebration." There is a greater
awareness of the need to celebrate modern Australia
- a land of diverse ethnic makeup, a country working
towards reconciliation with its indigenous people and
a nation gearing itself for the challenges of globalisation,
the removal of previously safe assumptions regarding
national identity, and the uncertainties of a new century.
Australia Day is the centre of an evolving nation.
Captain Arthur Phillip unfurls the British flag at
Sydney Cove and proclaims British sovereignty over
the eastern seaboard of Australia
First recorded celebrations on 26 January
Governor Macquarie recommends the adoption of the
name Australia for the entire continent, replacing
Governor Macquarie holds the first official celebrations
on 26 January, marking thirty years of white settlement
First Anniversary Regatta held on Sydney Harbour.
This is now the Australia Day Regatta, the
oldest continuous sailing regatta in the world
Celebrations held to mark the fiftieth anniversary
of Phillip's landing and the commencement of the traditional
Australia Day public holiday in New South
Australian Natives Association formed. Instrumental
in supporting issues such as Federation, the naming
of our national day as Australia Day and
citizenship ceremonies following WWI
Centenary celebrations for Anniversary Day across
the nation Centennial Park permanently reserved for
January 1, Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia
Australia Day adopted in Victoria
Australia Day adopted in NSW only to be reversed
to Anniversary Day by the incoming state government
Commonwealth Government and all States and Territories
except NSW adopt Australia Day as the official title
for our national day
150th Anniversary celebrations across the nation
All States and Territories celebrate the 26 January
as Australia Day
Separate Australian citizenship became law for the
first time Citizenship ceremonies began to become
part of Australia Day celebrations
Sir Macfarlane Burnet the first Australian of the
Lionel Rose becomes the first Aboriginal Australian
of the Year
26 January the Aboriginal Tent Embassy established
on the lawns of Parliament House, Canberra
National Australia Day Council formed, incorporated
Australia Day Council of NSW formed, initially
operating as part of the NSW Bicentennial Council
Bicentennial celebrations and for the first time a
united public holiday on the 26 January across the
nation Modern Tall Ships and First Fleet Re-enactment
arrive in Australia. Largest Aboriginal protest march
in history on 26 January
Inaugural Survival concert held at La Perouse, now
an annual event
All States and Territories begin to celebrate Australia
Day on the actual day - the 26 January - for
the first time
Over 6.5 million Australians celebrate Australia
Centenary of Federation celebrated. Though the date
was January 1st, many communities combined Australia
Day and Centenary of Federation celebrations.
Over 7 million people celebrate Australia Day
7.5 million people attend Australia Day ceremonies
nationally. This figure is unlikely to fall.
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Service, Canberra 1990.
- Celebrations of the Australian Sesquicentenary,
Mitchell Library, Sydney.
26 - Australia Day', ABC Videorecording, 1988.
George, 'Australia Day', RAHS-Journal, 45:266-8, Pt
Reverend James George, 'Wanted: A National Day', Meanjin,
13:118-120, Autumn, 1954.
Australia Day Council, Sydney, various papers.
Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association Inc., Sydney
1996, various papers.
Conigrave, C, '150th Anniversary Celebrations', RAHS
- Journal, Vol. 24, Pt. 1, 1938.
Morning Herald, Editorial, January 2, 1995.
Morning Herald, Letters to the Editor, January 5,
Educational Magazine, 14:481-83, No. 11, Education
Department Victoria, December, 1957.
choice of the 26 January as the day of celebration for
all Australians has been queried and argued from a historical
and practical viewpoint from the 1800's. That the day
might symbolise invasion, dispossession and death to
many Aboriginal people was a concept alien to the average
Australian until even the latter half of this century.
The Editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 January
1995, arguing for a change of date, stated that January
26 'can never be a truly national day for it symbolises
to many Aborigines the date they were conquered and
their lands occupied. This divisive aspect to 26 January,
the commemoration of the landing at Sydney Cove will
never be reconciled'.
Involvement of the Indigenous community on Australia
Day has taken many forms - forced participation in re-enactments,
mourning for Invasion Day, peaceful protest through
to an acknowledgment of survival and an increasing participation
in community events at a local level.
By 1888, the year of the centenary celebrations, the
white population had increased significantly while the
Aboriginal population had declined from at least 750,000
in 1788 to a mere estimated 67,000. (Aboriginal people
were not counted in the census until after 1967, though
they paid taxes, with an extra levy for Aboriginal ‘improvement’).
The 1888 centenary events overwhelmingly celebrated
British and Australian achievement and as Nigel Parbury
writes in his book Survival: 'In 1888 Aboriginals boycotted
the Centenary celebrations. Nobody noticed'.
By 1938, the Aboriginal community was becoming well
organised and able to make strong demands for political
rights and equality. An Australian Aborigines League
had been formed in 1932 and this was followed in 1937
by the Aborigines Progressive Association, a group that
began to achieve publicity in the press and addressed
a variety of groups such as the NSW Labor Council.
The AAL leader William Cooper and the APA's leader William
Ferguson, were instrumental in organising the Day of
Mourning Committee for the 1938 Sesquicentenary celebrations.
A manifesto, Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights, was published
and on Australia Day a conference and protest were held
in the Australian Hall, Sydney. Five days later, the
APA led an Aboriginal delegation to meet with the Prime
Minister and soon after Australia Day, the Committee
for Aboriginal Citizen Rights was formed.
The Aboriginal community's push for recognition was
highlighted by the 1938 official Australia Day celebrations.
Due to a refusal to cooperate from city-based Aborigines,
the government imported Aborigines from western communities,
locking them up in a stable at Redfern Police Barracks.
Immediately following the re-enactment, the group featured
on a float in the huge parade in Macquarie Street. The
following day they were 'sent back to their tin sheds
on the Darling River'.
Re-enactments of Phillip's landing continued to be an
accepted part of Australia Day ceremonies around the
country and it wasn't until the Bicentennial in 1988
that the New South Wales government refused to condone
a re-enactment as part of their official proceedings.
In 1968, the National Australia Day Council announced
the first Aboriginal recipient of its Australian of
the Year Award - boxer Lionel Rose.
Other Indigenous award recipients since then have included
more sporting personalities - Evonne Goolagong in 1971,
Mark Ella (1982), Cathy Freeman (1990) and Nova Peris-Kneebone
(1997) becoming Young Australian of the Year while two
members of the Yunupingu family, Galarrwuy (1978) and
Mandawuy (1992) and later Dr. Lowitja O'Donoghue AM,
CBE (1994) all were recipients of the award, Australian
of the Year, for their work as leaders of the Aboriginal
community. In 1995, the recipient of the inaugural National
Australia Day Council's Community of the Year Award
was the Jawoyn Association, recognising a decade of
achievement by the traditional owners of the Katherine
region in the Northern Territory.
Australia Day 1972 was marked by Prime Minister William
McMahon's announcement of his government's Aboriginal
policy, against the advice of the Council for Aboriginal
Affairs. The frustration within the Aboriginal community
found expression on the afternoon of Australia Day 1972
when a tent appeared on the lawns in front of Parliament
House -to become known as the Aboriginal 'Tent' Embassy
- The Aboriginal black, red and yellow flag designed
by Luritja artist Harold Thomas was to become a national
The 1988 Bicentenary Australia Day celebrations in Sydney
were marked by a huge and well-organised gathering and
protest march by the Aboriginal community, many of whom
had travelled to Sydney from all over the country.
Significant numbers of the ethnic and white communities
joined the gathered Aboriginals to create a crowd of
around 40,000 people who marched from Redfern Oval to
Hyde Park for a public rally. Here, Aboriginal activist
Gary Foley was pleased to see 'black and white Australians
together in harmony...... 'this is what we have always
said Australia could be'.
Many Aborigines who took part in the Bicentennial marches
felt they would like to have an alternative celebration
of how their history and culture had survived. The first
Survival concert, held in 1992, really began from those
early concepts and reflected a major shift away from
the traditionally-named Australia Day to Invasion Day
for the 26 January.
The Survival Concerts, now one of the biggest Aboriginal
cultural events of the year, have been entirely initiated
and coordinated by the Aboriginal community. La Perouse
hosted the concerts for many years. This, the first
place of European contact, has also had continuous Aboriginal
occupation since 1788 (and for thousands of years before)
and played a crucial role in the coming together of
the Aboriginal community for the huge 1988 March.
Regionally across New South Wales, an increasing number
of Indigenous communities are participating in their
local Australia Day ceremonies. The Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander flag is often raised alongside the Australian
flag and high profile Aborigines take the role of key-note
speakers and Australia Day Ambassadors for the Australia
Day Council as well as local Australia Day Committees.
Australia Day may well become a focus of reconciliation
and inclusion for indigenous Australians.