When Captain Arthur Phillip raised a Union Jack at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, he had little idea of the controversy that would follow. In the 19th century, the day varied in importance depending on which state you lived. Names and even dates varied by state, including Foundation Day, Anniversary Day and Proclamation Day. In the 20th century, debate about the day continued with Empire Day, Australia Day and, in recent years, Invasion Day and Survival Day. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie officially named the continent Australia in 1817, celebrations on 26 January focused on a new and independent country rather than a subsidiary colony of England. In 1888, Australian Natives Association (ANA) made up of the sons of Gold Rush migrants pushed for a national day that embraced allegiance to the Crown as well as an emphasis on nationalism. Celebrations in SA occurred on Proclamation Day on 28 December. In WA, June 1 marked arrival of European settlers. After World War 2 the name Australia Day gained momentum. Australia Day became the country’s national day after strong lobbying by the ANA replacing Foundation Day and Anniversary Day, but it was not until 1994 that full endorsement of Australia Day nationally as a public holiday occurred.
Up until this time, there was a lack of consensus between states over the day. From 1905, Empire Day celebrated on 24 May (the late Queen Victoria’s birthday) aimed to quell fears that Australia was losing its ties with England. Empire Day proposed by some political and church sectors as an alternative to Australia Day later known as Commonwealth Day. In 1932, NSW Premier John Lang declared 26 January as Australia Day, but his successor, Bertram Stevens, changed the name back to Anniversary Day. In 1938 Aboriginal activists added further variance when William Cooper and William Ferguson identified 26 January as a Day of Mourning.
Since 1946, several important events have taken place on Australia Day. In 1949, Australian citizenship distinct from British citizenship became law. Naturalisation ceremonies welcoming new migrants became an integral part of Australia Day celebration. In 1960, Sir MacFarlane Burnet received the inaugural Australian of the Year award for his Nobel Prize winning contribution to medicine. This award is now an important acknowledgement embedded on 26 January to commemorate outstanding Australians. Nine Aboriginal Australians have received awards, including Lionel Rose, Cathy Freeman and Adam Goodes. In 1988, the day saw Aboriginal solidarity, culminating in protests against the ostentatious fireworks and tall ships re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet. Two hundred and thirty years since Phillip raised the Union Jack, the day is again embroiled in debate with calls for the date to be changed. Following the 1988 Bicentennial, Australia Day was dubbed Invasion Day and Survival Day, resonating with William Cooper’s call for Aboriginal equity 80 years earlier. Time will tell if January 26 remains Australia Day, but it is likely to stay a significant day if history repeats. Australia Day remains steeped in argument and perhaps that is a good thing, serving all Australians as a chance to not only celebrate but to reflect, lament and recognise indigenous Australians’ important contribution. It is a chance also to put to rest the misdemeanours and felonies of the past.
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