Why I’ll be marching on January 26 by Dr Anita Heiss

Why I’ll be marching on January 26 … by Dr Anita Heiss

Dr Anita Heiss
By Professor Anita Heiss

It’s that time of year again when I feel incredibly tired and anxious. January 26 is only days away and my social media timelines are full of the angst the date brings to those who know, understand and embrace the true history of this country. At the same time, many others are in full swing ready to barbie and party in the name of ‘Australia Day’ (and it’s attached public holiday).

I’m tired because every year we have to explain why January 26 is problematic as a national day of celebration. Every year we desperately seek leadership in bringing us together as a nation so we can celebrate as a collective.

January 26 is not that date. And if you don’t understand why, perhaps ask yourself a couple of questions: Is it appropriate to celebrate a day that relates to the colonisation a nation? Should we celebrate a date that is linked to the dispossession of land from its original owners and the displacement of those same people? Do you feel comfortable celebrating a date that marks an invasion that saw warfare across the continent? Also known as the Forgotten War as documented by Henry Reynolds.


Take a breath before you say ‘Australia wasn’t invaded, it was colonised!’ Trust me, I’ve heard that argument at length. Australia was not discovered but it was both invaded and colonised.

If you’re not sure about the differences between the terms then have a look at the article Discovery, settlement or invasion? The power of language in Australia’s historical narrative.

To be blunt, January 26 is a date that marks the beginning of invasion – the warfare and the attempted genocide of Aboriginal people. It is a date that reminds many of us – of all cultural backgrounds – of the dark way in which this country was ‘founded’ by the British. It is a date that will never find us unified in a way that means we can celebrate together, and therefore it is date that must be changed.

It’s been a long, drawn out conversation

For many of us the idea of changing the date is not a new one. I think the first time I was asked to offer media comment about changing the date of ‘Australia Day’ was back in 1998 when I was at the then Survival Concert at Waverley Oval. Survival concerts began back in 1988 when Australia ‘celebrated’ the Bicentenary and sang along to the catchy tune ‘Celebration of a Nation’, while others sung ‘Celebration of Invasion’.

Such concerts now held around the nation on January 26 continue to mark our extraordinary resilience and survival on what many still refer to as Invasion Day. In Sydney, the Yabun concert hosted by Gadigal Information Services sees Australians of all cultural backgrounds descend on Victoria Park in what is considered to be the largest ‘alternative’ event on the day.

Kooris, Murris, Noongars, Nungas and mobs around Australia are not that different to our brothers and sisters in North America, just as Native Americans don’t celebrate Christopher Columbus Day – because let’s face he, he didn’t discover America. In fact, in South Dakota, the official state holiday is known as Native Americans Day. The city of Berkeley in California has replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day since 1992 and this has been duplicated in other cities around the state.

While our boycott of January 26 seems outrageous to some, we are no different to other colonised peoples wanting the respect to be considered when the nation is celebrating its national day. The sentiment to #changethedate today remains the same as it did back in 1988 and 1998, although the push  Treaty has also gained momentum through the Uluru Statement of the Heart.

Few might know that the “Draft treaty: Aboriginal sovereign position and legal entitlement: a draft written at the direction and after consultation with the Aboriginal Representative Members of the Sovereign Aboriginal Coalition”  was penned by the late Kevin Gilbert, Wiradjuri poet at and playwright back in 1987.

Although not necessarily reported in the media, there is a lot community discourse around a Treaty, Sovereignty, Recognition and the symbolism that comes with days like January 26. There is a diversity of voice and opinion in our community as there is in the wider community, and many see it as an either /or position. For my part, I believe that symbolism and practicality go hand-in-hand; one allows for constant reminders, memorials and celebrations, another provides the structure and legal processes for much needed change to take place.

While this year there is a push to #AbolishTheDate I do think it’s possible to have one day that we can all celebrate in a way that says that we love our country. At its heart and in so many ways this is a wonderful landscape to live within. In every community, city and town I visit I am enriched learning about and from the original storytellers of Australia. But our country has debilitating elements of xenophobia and a racist underbelly that needs to be addressed, and these are compounded when a national day like January 26 completely dismisses the truth of how Australia was founded, rendering Aboriginal people as invisible, non-existent, not only back then but right now in 2020.

Every year the Australia Day commercial triggers debate / conversation. I have only just watched this year’s ad online as I write this update this while traveling in India. The key message I hope viewers take away is offered uy one of the Elders who speaks of the need to listen.

There are many ways to tell our side of the  story, satire is one. BabaKiuera is a classic example that is still used in education circles to engage students in the conversation that the country needs to have as a whole. What would it be like if there was a Minister for White Affairs and how would white kids removed from their families cope in an alternative reality? It packs a political punch that makes audiences think, feel and GET IT!

Haven’t seen the video yet? Do yourself a favour! Watch it now on YouTube and let me know what you think?

Once you consider Babakiuaria you’ll understand that the problem with the lamb ad is that it fails to mention the actual reality of history, the violent invasion of Australia and the ongoing oppression of Aboriginal people over time. What it does well is showcase the diversity of our nation in a positive way, but simply not mentioning the words ‘Australia Day’ does not solve the issue. And a soft option is not the answer to a hard problem. Without discussing, engaging with and accepting the history that was our past, we cannot grow to be the country we should be now and in the future. And without that conversation and acceptance it doesn’t really matter what the new date is either.

It is this lack of education about the history, and about present diversity, that leads to racism and intolerance, which can in turn lead to violence, like the riots at Cronulla Beach in Sydney’s south on 11 December 2005. Following the assault of local lifeguards by ‘Lebanese- Australian’ men, locals retaliated. According to images in the media at the time, Anglo-Aussies were proudly wearing the Australian flag as a political statement, standing their ground against the Lebanese-Australians who had apparently ganged up. Placards by whitefellas claiming ‘We were here first’ completely ignored the 10s of 1000s of years of Aboriginal occupation before the First Fleet arrived.

Now more than ever we need leadership that brings us together rather than the Scott Morrison or Donald Trump divisive philosophies we are drowning in at the moment. Without it we stand to see more of the Cronulla experience in years to come.

Fremantle Council

In 2017 the #ChangeTheDate conversation made some serious ground with Fremantle Council in Western Australia deciding to hold its “One Day”  – culturally inclusive celebration two days after the rest of the nation.

Kudos to Fremantle Council for leading the way on what is possible. A true leader shows courage in forging a progressive path. And while the Council may be accused of playing ‘black politics’ I don’t believe that any government, at any level, could ever be accused of pandering to the wishes of Blackfellas because we don’t have the numbers to make any real difference to political outcomes or the local economy.

The decision Fremantle Council made back then told me that they were conscious of the fact that many of their constituents desire change, a day that is inclusive and that allows all citizens to participate together, as one community. As long as January 26 remains the national day to celebrate, the community will be divided and that’s not something that the citizens are doing to ourselves, it is something we are forced to do.

I often work on January 26 because in the main it is a day I’d rather not be part of. When I lived in Sydney I’d pop into the Yabun concert in Sydney after work and spend some time connecting with family and friends reminding myself that we have survived as a strong, determined, proud people.

This year I will be joining the march in Brisbane with 1000s of others. You can join me in this march – details here.  There are events happening around the country that you can be part of.  Here’s a list of some.

My hope for the near future is that 2020 presents all Australians with a greater understanding of our shared history, a new date, a new opportunity for us all to celebrate with national pride, and yes, where we can all enjoy a public holiday with meaning and maybe even a roo snag or a prawn on the barbie too.

This was first published by Dr Anita Heiss on her blog and is republished with permission.

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