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Change the date? Support grows for a rethink of Australia Day.

shift in thought

Jan. 26 marks the anniversary of the arrival of the first British settlers to build a penal colony. For Aboriginals, it's known as 'Invasion Day.'

An Aboriginal protester holds a placard as she stands outside the Australian Prime Minister's office in Sydney, Australia, July 6, 2015.
/David Gray/Reuters/File | Caption
  • John Power
    Correspondent

Each year when Australia’s national day comes around, Johani Mamid cannot bring himself to join his countrymen in their festivities.

Mr. Mamid is an Aboriginal. Jan. 26 marks the anniversary of the arrival of the first British settlers to build a penal colony. For Australians of European descent, the public holiday celebrates a founding moment in their history. For Mamid, it is an occasion to reflect somberly on an event that for many indigenous Australians is synonymous with colonization and dispossession.

“I stay home on this day and I keep to myself,” says Mamid, a conservation worker in far-flung Broome, Western Australia. “I can't stand the Australian flag being waved in my face or people saying happy Australia Day to me. To me, it's not a happy day, it's a sad day, and that flag still has the [British] Union Jack on it, the original flag that came on the boat to begin the invasion.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who make up 3 percent of the population, have long called for Australia Day to be moved to another date, often referring to Jan. 26 as “Invasion Day” or the “Day of Mourning.” And now they are finding wider support outside their community as white Australians and other recent immigrants grow more aware of the devastation that colonization wrought upon the country’s first peoples.

The Aboriginal population plummeted by an estimated 90 percent between first contact and 1900, killed violently by settlers or by disease and displacement. Today, descendants of the survivors remain severely disadvantaged, lagging other Australians by about a decade in average life expectancy and almost a third in disposable income.

“Indigenous people want to feel comfortable and celebrate being Australians, too, but with a good liyarn (spiritual feeling) about celebrating,” says Mamid, who works to maintain indigenous land rights in the Kimberly region, a vast expanse of red desert in the country's west. “But we can't do that if it's done on the 26th of January, out of respect to our ancestors and to ourselves.”

Shift in mood?

Since November, The Saturday Paper, a left-leaning broadsheet based in Melbourne, has taken up the Aboriginals’ cause and called for a boycott of the Australia Day celebrations. Around half a dozen companies, including a law firm, an investment fund and an architectural agency, have publicly committed to operating as normal on the public holiday, while dozens of others have signed on more quietly, according to the paper's editor, Erik Jensen.

Though politicians have been slow to react, Mr. Jensen believes ordinary people can show the way on this issue. "Where that will is lacking, there is actually an opportunity for the public to lead the politics," he says.

There have been other small signs of a shift in mood. The Sparkke Change Beverage Company, a socially-conscious startup in Adelaide, released a beer last November called “Change the Date,” pledging a portion of its profits toward the cause. In a more subtle nod to growing sensitivities, when Meat and Livestock Australia aired TV advertisements promoting Australian lamb for the upcoming holiday, they did not mention which holiday it is.

The Western Australian city of Fremantle made the biggest splash, though, with an announcement that it would stage this year’s Australia Day firework display on another date. The city soon reversed course, however, when the federal government threatened to ban the council from holding citizenship ceremonies for new Australians.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the center-right Liberal Party, has acknowledged that the date is controversial but ruled out a change, apparently sensitive to the prevailing public mood. In an opinion poll last year, 59 percent of Australians said they were against the holiday being moved.

Though still a solid majority, it is a shrinking one. A similar poll carried out in 2014 had found that 66 percent of Australians supported keeping Australia Day on Jan. 26.

Australian doesn't mean white

That date has become harder to justify in a multicultural society where to be Australian is no longer automatically to be white and of British descent, says Ben Jones, who teaches history at Australian National University in Canberra. In 2015, more than 28 percent of the population was born overseas, according to the government, which does not collect statistics based on race.

But Dr. Jones says many Australians see no need for a change because they do not believe they should feel guilty for the past.

“We went through the same debate with whether there should be a national apology from the government for the treatment or mistreatment of indigenous Australians,” Jones says of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s landmark apology in 2008, which came only after years of resistance by a previous conservative government.

Any effort to find a substitute holiday date is complicated by the lack of obvious alternative events to celebrate. Unlike the United States, which has similarly grappled with the meaning of Columbus Day, Australia has no independence day, having never broken its constitutional ties to the United Kingdom. While many Australians see the declaration of a republic at some point in the future as an ideal date for the national day, for now, Queen Elizabeth remains the official head of state.

Meanwhile, the anniversary of Australia’s creation as a federal state in 1901, the effective birth of the nation, falls on New Year’s Day. Comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, in a knowing wink at the problem, this month offered up a solution without historical connotations at all: May 8, a hat tip to the quintessentially Australian expression “mate.”

But for many indigenous Australians, the exact date isn’t important – as long as it’s not that one day in January that would forever change their world.

“Except on a leap year, there are 364 other days that we can choose to celebrate being Australian together,” says Mamid. “Give up the current date and then we can share a new date together as one.”