Australian English decidedly finds its origins in British English. But when it comes to chasing down Irish influence, there are – to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld – some knowun knowuns, some unknowun knowuns, and a bucket load of furphies. The first Irish settlers, around half of whom were reputedly Irish language speakers, were viewed with suspicion and derision. This is reflected in the early Australian English words used to describe those who came from Patland (a blend of Paddy and Land).
Recently there has been an increase in studies documenting the world’s languages. Most of these studies concentrate on spoken languages but there is a growing effort to document sign languages. In this short paper we describe one of the many undocumented sign languages of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. This Indigenous sign language is known locally as Yolŋu Sign Language (YSL). Although this language is used in daily interaction, many of its users are not aware that it is a language per se. With this brief description of YSL we hope to make our readers aware of the existence of this language. Another aim of this paper is to generate some general discussion on the status of Indigenous sign languages in Arnhem Land, which we believe have become endangered. Although YSL is an endangered language there are still measures that can be taken to prevent this language disappearing.
Traditional Owners on the Gove Peninsula are at the forefront of the campaign to end domestic violence. The Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, in partnership with the Northern Territory Police, held the first Indigenous Family Violence Policing Conference in Alice Springs in June last year.
During the closing of the event, the Rirratjingu invited the 2018 conference to be held in the Rirratjingu heartland – the remote community of Yirrkala in North-east Arnhem Land. The invitation was accepted.
For more on this and other articles on Rirratjingu in the January edition of Territory Q, click below and turn to page 62.
Our knowledge of what the denizens of the animal kingdom are up to, especially when humans aren’t around, has steadily increased over the last 50 years. For example, we know now that animals use tools in their daily lives. Chimps use twigs to fish for termites; sea otters break open shellfish on rocks they selected; octopi carry coconut shell halves to later use as shelters.
The latest discovery has taken this assessment to new heights, literally. A team of researchers led by Mark Bonta and Robert Gosford in northern Australia has documented kites and falcons, colloquially termed “firehawks,” intentionally carrying burning sticks to spread fire. While it has long been known that birds will take advantage of natural fires that cause insects, rodents and reptiles to flee and thus increase feeding opportunities, that they would intercede to spread fire to unburned locales is astounding.
It’s thus no surprise that this study has attracted great attention as it adds intentionality and planning to the repertoire of non-human use of tools. Previous accounts of avian use of fire have been dismissed or at least viewed with some skepticism.
While new to Western science, the behaviours of the nighthawks have long been known to the Alawa, MalakMalak, Jawoyn, and other Indigenous peoples of northern Australia whose ancestors occupied their lands for tens of thousands of years. Contrary to most scientific studies, Bonta and Gosford’s team foregrounded their research in traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge. They also note that local awareness of the behaviour of the firehawks is ingrained within some of their ceremonial practices, beliefs and creation accounts.
The worldwide attention given to the firehawks article provides an opportunity to explore the double standard that exists concerning the acceptance of Traditional Knowledge by practitioners of Western science.
Our knowledge of the world comes from many sources. In my field, archaeologists have long depended upon ethnographic sources of information — detailed observations or information derived directly from communities studied — to help develop or test interpretations about past peoples’ lives.
In recent years, many scholars have become aware of the large body of information known as Traditional Knowledge (TK), Indigenous Knowledge (IK), or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), amongst other terms. These knowledge systems, developed over countless generations, are based on individual and collectively learned experiences and explanations of the world, verified by elders, and conveyed and guided experiential learning, and by oral traditions and other means of record keeping.
Traditional Knowledge has today become a highly valued source of information for archaeologists, ecologists, biologists, ethnobotanists, climatologists and others. This information ranges from medicinal properties of plants and insights into the value of biological diversity to caribou migration patterns and the effects of intentional burning of the landscape to manage particular resources. For example, some climatology studies have incorporated Qaujimajatuqangit (Inuit traditional knowledge) to explain changes in sea ice conditions observed over many generations.
Despite the wide acknowledgement of their demonstrated value, many scientists continue to have had an uneasy alliance with TK and Indigenous oral histories. On the one hand, TK and other types of local knowledge are valued when they support or supplements archaeological, or other scientific evidence.
However, when the situation is reversed — when Traditional Knowledge is seen to challenge scientific “truths” — then its utility is questioned or dismissed as myth. Science is promoted as objective, quantifiable, and the foundation for “real” knowledge creation or evaluation while TK may be seen as anecdotal, imprecise and unfamiliar in form.
Multiple ways of knowing
Are Indigenous and Western systems of knowledge categorically antithetical? Or do they offer multiple points of entry into knowledge of the world, past and present? There are many cases where science and history are catching up with what Indigenous peoples have long known.
In the past two decades, archaeologists and environmental scientists working in coastal British Columbia have come to recognize evidence of mariculture — the intentional management of marine resources — that pre-dates European settlement. Over the course of thousands of years, the ancestors of the Kwakwaka’wakw and other Indigenous groups there created and maintained what have become known as “clam gardens” — rock-walled, terrace-like constructions that provide ideal habit for butter clams and other edible shellfish.
As marine ecologist Amy Groesbeck and colleagues have demonstrated, these structures increase shellfish productivity and resource security significantly. This resource management strategy reflects a sophisticated body of ecological understanding and practice that predates modern management systems by millennia.
These published research studies now prove that Indigenous communities knew about mariculture for generations but Western scientists never asked them about it before. Once tangible remains were detected, it was clear mariculture management was in use for thousands of years. There is a move underway by various Indigenous communities in the region to restore and recreate clam gardens and put them back into use.
A second example demonstrates how Indigenous oral histories correct inaccurate or incomplete historical accounts. There are significant differences between Lakota and Cheyenne accounts of what transpired at the Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn) in 1876, and the historical accounts that appeared soon after the battle by white commentators.
The Lakota and Cheyenne can be considered more objective than white accounts of the battle that are tainted by Eurocentric bias. The ledger drawings of Red Horse, a Minneconjou Sioux participant in the battle, record precise details such as trooper’s uniforms, the location of wounds on horses, and the distribution of Indian and white casualties.
In 1984, a fire at the battleground revealed miltary artifacts and human remains that prompted archaeological excavations. What this work revealed was a new, more accurate history of the battle that validated many elements of the Native American oral histories and accompanying pictographs and drawings of the events. However, without the archaeological evidence, many historians gave limited credence to the accounts obtained from the participating Native American warriors.
These examples, along with the firehawks study, demonstrate the reliability of Indigenous knowledge.
Opportunities at the intersection
As ways of knowing, Western and Indigenous Knowledge share several important and fundamental attributes. Both are constantly verified through repetition and verification, inference and prediction, empirical observations and recognition of pattern events.
While some actions leave no physical evidence (e.g. clam cultivation), and some experiments can’t be replicated (e.g. cold fusion), in the case of Indigenous knowledge, the absence of “empirical evidence” can be damning in terms of wider acceptance.
Some types of Indigenous knowledge simply fall outside the realm of prior Western understanding. In contrast to Western knowledge, which tends to be text based, reductionist, hierarchical and dependent on categorization (putting things into categories), Indigenous science does not strive for a universal set of explanations but is particularistic in orientation and often contextual.
One key attribute of Western science is developing and then testing hypotheses to ensure rigor and replicability in interpreting empirical observations or making predictions. Although hypothesis testing is not a feature of TEK, rigor and replicability are not absent.
Whether or not traditional knowledge systems and scientific reasoning are mutually supportive, even contradictory lines of evidence have value. Employing TK-based observations and explanations within multiple working hypotheses ensures consideration of a variety of predictive, interpretive or explanatory possibilities not constrained by Western expectation or logic. And hypotheses incorporating traditional knowledge-based information can lead the way toward unanticipated insights.
Indigenous peoples don’t need Western science to validate or legitimate their knowledge system. Some do appreciate the verification, and there are partnerships developing worldwide with Indigenous knowledge holders and Western scientists working together.
This includes Traditional Ecological Knowledge informing government policies on resource management in some instances. But it is nonetheless problematic when their knowledge, which has been dismissed for so long by so many, becomes a valuable data set or used selectively by academics and others.
To return to the firehawks example, one way to look at this is that the scientists confirmed what the Indigenous peoples have long known about the birds’ use of fire. Or we can say that the Western scientists finally caught up with TK after several thousand years.
Australia is missing its target to halve the unemployment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia by several decades, according to the latest Closing the Gap report.
The report also highlights many other problems with current Closing the Gap targets. For instance, the unemployment target misses other aspects of economic life, such as income. The targets need to be rethought so that they address economic well-being and more closely guide strategy and policies on the ground.
The unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is going down. But 2016 Census data show that it will take until 2031 to halve the gap, and until about 2051 to close the gap entirely. Even New South Wales, which leads Australia on this measure, won’t meet the target until about 2026.
One reason why some states are doing better in tackling the unemployment gap is that different opportunities are available for urban and rural Australians. In 2014/15, only 5% of the NSW Indigenous population lived in remote areas. This compares to 21% nationally, 79% in the Northern Territory and 19% in Queensland.
Under the Indigenous Procurement Policy, 3% of all federal procurement contracts go to Indigenous businesses. This is a big part of the federal government’s plan to achieve the employment target.
However, while there may be some success stories, a recent report also warned that “the policy’s target measurement system greatly exaggerates its success”.
For instance, in 2015-16 Indigenous suppliers won 2.9% of government contracts but these contracts accounted for only 0.94% of total procurement spending.
The latest Closing the Gap report highlights the continued importance of Indigenous leadership in this space and the need for government to actually listen and truly partner, rather than just talk about it.
Only through empowerment and ownership by Indigenous Australians will we see serious improvements against a revised Closing the Gap framework, or any other standard for that matter. Mere rhetoric is not, and never will be, enough.
Tremendous gains yet to be made
While Closing the Gap focuses on hitting a target employment rate, there are other aspects to economic well-being that are not considered.
The framework fails to address the widening gap in weekly personal income between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, for example. This shows that even if employment rates are improving, Indigenous Australians are still earning comparatively less.
Economic well-being also collides with other facets of well-being in a number of ways. For instance, an adequate income means earning enough money to access quality health care and education. But it’s also important to derive satisfaction and meaning from employment.
There is also no clear strategy for how the targets filter down into ground-level approaches that are evidence-based and actually work. The federal government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy tried to link activities to outcomes that aligned with the Closing the Gap targets, but was found to have performed poorly across a number of areas.
Without a stronger evidence base and a clearer strategy for how the targets are meant to inform on-the-ground policies and programs, we simply don’t know which approaches to amplify and which to abandon.
The current process to refresh the Closing the Gap targets and framework is under way and might consider some of these issues. However, it already faces problems with poor consultation and partnership.
This is ironic, given the repeated sentiments of the last ten years of Closing the Gap reports that relationships are being strengthened.
Although the latest report has shown that some areas are improving, there are many more metrics that show little or no change.
This year’s Closing the Gap report tells a more positive story than the 2017 report on the seven measurable gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the areas of health, education and employment.
According to the government’s figures, the targets relating to Year 12 attainment, early childhood education, and child mortality are on track to be closed. In last year’s report, Year 12 attainment was on track, but child mortality wasn’t. Early childhood education is a revised target, and 2018 is the first time trends can be monitored. The previous early childhood target was not met.
But the targets related to life expectancy, employment, literacy and numeracy, and school attendance are not on track to being met.
There has been steady improvement in absolute terms on most of the measures over the last decade, even if gaps have not closed at the desired pace.
Despite the symbolic importance these targets have gained and their precise numerical definition, progress toward meeting them remains remarkably hard to measure. This can lead to confusion and a sense that data is being constructed or interpreted to fit prior assumptions.
Low numbers of child deaths in a given year mean child mortality figures fluctuate across years in a way that doesn’t reflect real change. So, the child mortality target was on track, then it wasn’t, and now it is again. Policy parameters, however, haven’t changed much over the period.
For early childhood education, the number of Indigenous children attending preschool and the total number of eligible children come from different data sources. As those sources are revised (for example with new population estimates), it can look like rates are higher or lower than they actually are.
Care needs to be taken in interpreting progress, and ascribing this to actual policy change.
Given its inability to meet such precisely defined targets, the Closing the Gap policy has been widely described as a failure. There are at least three important reasons why this is so.
First, laudable policy ambition was not matched with a radical change in how business is done in Indigenous affairs.
It has been clear since 2008 there would be little prospect of closing gaps in health and employment within a generation if business-as-usual policymaking continued. That same analysis showed closing the gap in educational attainment was more realistic if trends predating Closing the Gap continued. The latest report has vindicated this forecast.
However, without significant changes to how Indigenous policy was made, funded, and implemented, it seems the Closing the Gap policy was always destined to fail.
Second, governments’ stated policy goals have not always matched their policy actions.
An example of the mismatch between words and deeds can be found in employment policy. The abolition of a key job creation program – the Community Development Employment Projects scheme – has led to declining employment rates in remote parts of Australia. This reform has stalled progress toward closing employment gaps, not assisted it.
Closing the Gap has also been hampered by competing policy priorities, such as the attempts to eliminate the federal budget deficit. It is likely the repeated cuts to the Indigenous affairs budget – especially in 2014 but also more recently with the apparent shortfall in the remote housing funding – has hobbled potential progress.
These negative outcomes are worse still when the opportunity costs of the immense amount of money and policy attention devoted to the Intervention are considered. As well as disempowering Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, the Intervention cost time and money that could have been better spent elsewhere.
Third, measures intended to achieve the targets have rarely been subject to careful evaluation and revision. Evaluations when they do occur rarely capture causal impact. And they often don’t capture the voices of those who were affected by the policy.
While there has been much talk from successive governments about the importance of evidence-based policy in Indigenous affairs, the promised focus on high-quality policy evaluation has yet to materialise.
Most importantly, the Closing the Gap framework has never tackled head-on the most important gap of all: the gulf between the political autonomy and economic resources of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
Arguably, the framing of Closing the Gap as a technical problem – reported on with a barrage of statistics, targets, measurement discussions and the like – serves to hide the extent to which Indigenous disadvantage is a political problem requiring structural reforms.
The apparent sidelining of reforms that Indigenous people have long argued would help to close gaps should lead us to question whether depoliticisation is the Closing the Gap policy’s real “target”.
There has been little in the Closing the Gap agenda that has empowered Indigenous people to implement local solutions to the issues that they identify as being problems. If the promised “refresh” of Closing the Gap does not put resources – and the power to direct them – into Indigenous hands, the prospects for closing socioeconomic gaps are likely to remain distant.
For the ultimate road trip soundtrack, the car is playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity.
The car will enter an elliptical solar orbit, its furthest point from the Sun around the distance of Mars.
Musk thinks of it as future space archaeology.
Reactions include waxing lyrical about the speed the car will reach, lamenting the lost opportunity for a scientific experiment, and celebrating it as an inspirational act of whimsy.
Fear of flying
The Tesla Roadster might be an expendable dummy payload, but it’s primary purpose is symbolic communication. There’s a lot going on here.
There’s an element of performing excessive wealth by wasting it. Giving up such an expensive car (a new model costs US$200,000) could be seen as a sacrifice for space, but it’s also like burning $100 notes to show how how little they mean.
In the 1960s, anthropologist Victor Turner argued that symbols can encompass two contradictory meanings at the same time. Thus, the sports car in orbit symbolises both life and death. Through the body of the car, Musk is immortalised in the vacuum of space. The car is also an armour against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality.
The spacesuit is also about death. It’s the essence of the uncanny: the human simulacrum, something familiar that causes uneasiness, or even a sense of horror. The Starman was never alive, but now he’s haunting space.
In a similar vein, the red sports car symbolises masculinity – power, wealth and speed – but also how fragile masculinity is. Stereotypically, the red sports car is the accessory of choice in the male mid-life crisis, which men use to rebel against perceived domestication.
A related cultural meme holds that owning a sports car is over-compensation. Have we just sent the equivalent of a dick pic into space?
The brainchild of Peter Beck (founder of the New Zealand-based Rocket Lab), the Humanity Star was launched on 21 January 2018, but kept a secret until after it had successfully reached orbit.
In contrast to the lean and slightly aggressive lines of the sports car, the Humanity Star is a geodesic sphere of silver triangular panels. It’s a beach ball, a moon, a BB8, a space age sculpture. Its round shape is friendly and reassuring.
Similar satellites – with reflective surfaces designed for bouncing lasers – are orbiting Earth right now. But this satellite doesn’t have a scientific purpose. It’s only function is to be seen from Earth as its bright faces tumble to catch the light.
Astronomers weren’t happy, saying that it would confuse astronomical observations. It was even called “space graffiti”, implying that its visual qualities marred the “natural” night sky. Some lambasted Rocket Lab for contributing to the orbital debris problem. Instead of inspiration, they saw pollution.
Through the looking glass
Beck wants people to engage with the Humanity Star. In his words,
My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.
Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.
This is the “Overview Effect” in reverse. We can’t all go to space and see the whole blue marble of the Earth from outside, inspiring a new consciousness of how much we are all together in the same boat. Beck has tried to create a similar feeling of a united Earth by looking outwards instead.
In nine months or so, the Humanity Star will tumble back into the atmosphere to be consumed. It will leave no trace of its passage through orbit.
The medium is the message
Ultimately, these orbiting objects are messages about human relationships with space. Both objects were launched by private corporations, inviting Earthbound people to share the journey. However, one reinforces existing inequalities, while the other promotes a hopeful vision of unity.
Beck and Musk’s intentions are irrelevant to how the symbols are interpreted by diverse audiences. Symbols can be multivalent, contradictory, and fluid – their meanings can change over time, and in different social contexts.
Every object humans have launched into the solar system is a statement: each tells the story of our attitudes to space at a particular point in time.
The Transforming Housing research network recently held a workshop on how the Victorian government can maximise the social benefits of its Public Housing Renewal Program. The workshop attracted more than 100 participants – local government, non-profit housing providers, public housing residents and researchers. Despite being invited, the state government was notable for its absence.
This apparent reluctance to engage with stakeholders adds to a serious concern over government secrecy about social housing projects involving private developers. There are many basic pieces of information interested members of the public might want to find out but cannot.
The number of private units versus new public units, and the size of the units, is just one example. Another example involves the government target of an increase of “at least 10%” in social housing units on former public housing land sold to developers. There has been no discussion of the rationale behind that figure.
Similarly, what prices will be charged for land currently occupied by public housing? The government forecasts Melbourne’s population will grow to 8 million by mid-century. This means any underutilised land in the inner city will become much more valuable.
By selling off public housing land in well-located inner suburbs, the government is forfeiting the future benefits of that land, including the opportunity to add to desperately needed public housing stock in these areas. How is the public supposed to evaluate the trade-offs between costs and benefits if critical information like the repair cost versus the costs of demolition and sale is kept secret?
As public housing represents such a small proportion of total housing stock, only the most vulnerable households that are least able to pay rent are eligible to live in this housing. At the same time, federal government subsidy shortfalls have created a maintenance backlog for an ageing public housing stock.
Successive reports by the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office in 2010, 2012 and 2017 have identified the absence of a sound and sustainable mechanism for maintaining, let alone expanding, non-profit housing stock. A year ago, the independent state government advisory body Infrastructure Victoria recommended as one of three infrastructure priorities that the government repair existing stock and create new social housing.
Many submissions to a parliamentary inquiry by residents and neighbours of the nine affected estates express frustration and fear over the government’s secretive approach. One frustrated neighbour noted that he had to dig through the appendices of a traffic analysis to find out how many new market-rate units would be built near his home. As housing academics, we share residents’ frustrations at the unnecessary level of secrecy.
Concerns over the absence of a transparent cost-benefit approach to
infrastructure planning are evident as well in the debates over the West Gate Tunnel and the recent re-emergence of the East-West Link in the appendix of a budget report. The current government spent A$1 billion to bury the latter project three years ago. The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office also expressed concerns about misreporting costs, benefits and risks under the previous state government.
Over the border in Canada, the funding and planning behind the large-scale Regent Park Public Housing renewal in Toronto is publicly available.
Developers and other providers interested in lucrative government contracts complain that transparency jeopardises their hard-earned trade secrets, and thus their businesses. We disagree. The transparency we see elsewhere isn’t stopping developers from doing business.
More importantly, should private firms that keep information about public benefit “commercial in confidence” be in the business of serving taxpayers at all? Shouldn’t those whose “business” is assured by the tax-levying powers of the state be able to be held publicly to account?
Government officials assure us these deals go through complex layers of intergovernmental review to safeguard the public interest. We doubt that any amount of bureaucratic review can replace the accountability of simply revealing these deals to the public, and we suspect the public agrees with us.
This is part of a series examining Australian national identity, especially around the ongoing debate about Australia Day.
Alongside the celebration, Australia Day also has a long history of commemoration and contestation, and this year is no different. In Western Australia, Fremantle council’s proposal to hold an alternative and culturally inclusive citizenship ceremony on January 28 was condemned by the federal government. The council was eventually forced to reinstate it to January 26.
Meat and Livestock Australia’s promotion of eating lamb on Australia Day continues to be controversial. Indigenous groups have been scathing about a TV advertisement that shows European invaders providing chops for a BBQ on the beach.
And following the recent removal of an Australia Day sign showing two smiling young girls in hijabs, a successful crowdfunding campaign will support the erection of this image on billboards across the nation.
Every year, the Australia Day holiday raises questions about our national identity and history. Colonisation, multiculturalism, social and cultural diversity and inclusion are at the heart of such debates. They ask us questions about what it means to be Australian – and “unAustralian”.
Like all national days, the significance attached to Australia Day has changed over time and the day has its own history. In May 1787, the British Admiralty sent the First Fleet carrying convicts and marines, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, to found a penal colony at Botany Bay.
Amid a gale, on January 26, 1788, Phillip was rowed ashore at Sydney Cove, raised the Union Jack and proclaimed British sovereignty over the eastern half of the continent. The formal establishment of the Colony of New South Wales, and Phillip’s role as governor, followed on February 7.
In early colonial Sydney, almanacs began referring to “First Landing Day” or “Foundation Day”. Successful immigrants – particularly ex-convicts – held anniversary dinners on January 26. In 1818, Governor Lachlan Macquarie formally marked 30 years as a colony with a 30-gun salute (a practice followed by his successors) at Dawes Point. Foundation Day continued to be commemorated, and an annual regatta in Sydney Harbour soon became its main attraction.
Other colonies commemorated their own imperial foundations. In Van Dieman’s Land – later renamed Tasmania – Regatta Day in early December jointly acknowledged the landing of Abel Tasman in 1642 and its separation from New South Wales in 1825. In Western Australia, Foundation Day on June 1 celebrated the arrival of white settlers in 1829. South Australia’s Proclamation Day was held on December 28.
In 1888, a week-long program in Sydney marked the centenary of British occupation. Anniversary Day — as it was then known — was a holiday in all capital cities except Adelaide. In Sydney, thousands attended the unveiling of a statue of Queen Victoria and the opening of Centennial Park. Representatives from all Australian colonies, and New Zealand, visited their “sister colony” to join the celebrations.
With 60% of the non-Indigenous population in Australia now “native-born”, the idea of a national day was gaining greater momentum. But views on what was being remembered on January 26 remained mixed.
Many felt that NSW’s convict origins were best forgotten. And there was little for Indigenous Australians to celebrate. The NSW governor, Henry Parkes, recognised that the day was a reminder to the Aborigines of how the British had “robbed” them.
The inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 strengthened the idea of a foundational holiday, and the Australian Natives Association took up the cause. In 1905, Empire Day was introduced on May 24, the late Queen Victoria’s birthday, to signal the continuing strength of imperial ties in the newly federated nation.
On July 30, 1915, an Australia Day was held to raise funds for the first world war effort. But Australia’s landing at Gallipoli earlier that year was to launch the commemoration of another national day: Anzac Day on April 25.
This date was first commemorated in London in 1916. By 1927 the day was a national holiday in all Australian states. During the 1920s, the Australian Natives Association continued to lobby for a national Foundation or Anniversary Day.
In 1935, all states adopted a common date and name for Australia Day, January 26. By the 1940s a national public holiday was in place.
The sesquicentenary of British colonisation was widely celebrated throughout Australia in 1938, particularly in Sydney. The re-enactment of Phillip’s landing and hoisting of the British flag at Sydney Cove was followed by an extensive pageant with motorised floats that demonstrated a march to nationhood. There was no representation of convicts, although the initial float depicted precolonial Aboriginal society. The white organisers had brought Aboriginal people from outside Sydney to perform.
In Sydney, over 100 Aborigines gathered at the Australia Hall for an Aborigines Conference to mark the “Day of Mourning and Protest”.
Jack Patten, of the Aborigines Progressive Association in NSW, chaired the meeting; other leaders present included William Cooper of the Australian Aborigines League in Victoria. Speeches protested against “the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years”, and asked for new laws to grant citizenship and equality to Aboriginal people.
In the second half of the 20th century, the federal government began to take an increasingly prominent role in organising Australia Day. It established the National Australia Day Committee — which became a federally funded council in 1984.
The council aimed to promote national unity and was boosted by the preparations for the Bicentenary in 1988. Australia Day celebrations in Sydney included the arrival of tall ships from around the world, and a re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney. A huge protest march of over 40,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Sydney disputed the “celebration of the nation” as a day of white invasion. This drew national and international attention to Indigenous rights in Australia.
Public participation in Australia Day events — including concerts, fireworks and other community gatherings — has increased since the 1990s. Most Australians welcome the public holiday, which has come to mark the end of summer and the return to school.
But the day has continued to be one of Indigenous protest, with Invasion Day and Survival Day rallies held across the nation.
Elsewhere in the world, foundation days commemorating European colonisation are similarly contested. In the US, for instance, the national institution of Thanksgiving marks the autumn feast of the Pilgrims, but Native Americans have long considered it a “national day of mourning” and a celebration of cultural genocide.
Any decision to change Australia Day to an alternative date or disband it altogether would need to be made by the combined federal and state governments.
That seems unlikely to happen. Suggestions from time to time that Australia Day be moved to another date have met with little enthusiasm.
It should be noted, though, that in the frenzy surrounding the centenary of the first world war, Anzac Day has increasingly come to be seen as Australia’s more significant national day.