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Australia Day

“We must be the only country in the world that marks its national day not by celebrating its identity, but by questioning it.” Ken Boundy

Australia Day is arguably the most unique national day in the world because, rather than unite, it seems to divide Australians into different viewpoints. It is celebrated on January 26, which is the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet of criminals in 1788. Ironically, Australian governments have been reluctant to acknowledge this history with any prescriptive symbolism or speeches. Without any prescriptive symbolism, the majority of Australians just use the day to have a barbeque or do some other pastime that takes advantage of the great things about the Australian lifestyle.

While the lack of prescription is embraced by some, it concerns the more sombre minded Australians who have interpreted it to mean that the government is celebrating the invasion of Australia and the dispossession of Aborigines. These Australians usually use the day to participate in an Aboriginal protest march or call for the date to be changed. Typical views include:

" The 26th of January is an inappropriate date for Australia Day as it merely represents the anniversary of the arrival of the British to establish the penal colony of New South Wales. It does not represent of birth of a nation and disengages the aboriginal and non-British communities from their sense of involvement in nationhood. It also sends the wrong message to our Asian neighbours, reminding them of our European roots." Daniel Bryant

" Instead of reciting the oath on Australia day, which commemorates the founding of a prison in Sydney, why don't we Victorians recite the oath on the anniversary of the laying of the first stone of Pentridge Prison? " Tobin Maker

“Australia Day should be changed to a more suitable date, rather than the one that not only insults the rightful owners of this land, our indigenous peoples, but conveniently disregards the non-White (sic) migrants.” Australia Day = Shame Day

“Nature and diversity of culture for me is Australias(sic) beauty. I wonder how Aboriginal people would view this lunacy.” Michele Walker

Although Australia Day has virtually no symbolic meaning today, its origins can be traced to a desire for egalitarianism that much of the world has strived for and which arguably no country has achieved as successfully as Australia. For Convicts, January 26 1788 was not a happy time. It marked the establishment of a penal colony where they suffered some of the worst human rights violations that the world had even seen. Women were pack raped by officers on transport ships and then assigned to free settlers as if cattle. Men were flogged until their backbones were exposed to the flies. Despite these hardships, or perhaps because of them, in 1808 emancipated Convicts used January 26 as a date to organise great parties to celebrate the land they lived in. In a way, the parties celebrated their survival. Although the more “reputable” members of colonial society weren’t too keen on putting the old ball and chain on their legs in tribute to the founding fathers and laying down in a sexual pose in tribute to the mothers, they just couldn't say no to a great party.

As the parties grew in size, emancipists and their children infused them with political edge as they campaigned to have the same rights as free British migrants. In 1818, their cause was embraced by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who acknowledged the day with its first official celebration of what was then known as Foundation Day. Macquarie declared that the day would be a holiday for all government workers, granting each an extra allowance of "one pound of fresh meat", and that there should be a 30 gun salute at Dawes Point – one for each year that the colony had existed.

By 1888, all Australian colonies bar South Australia (which prided itself on its Convict free status) were celebrating Foundation Day or Anniversary Day.

In 1935, Anniversary Day officially became known as Australia Day and was promoted as a day for national unity. Of course, the small issue of Convicts still proved somewhat problematic when it came to acknowledging and celebrating the history. The solution was to simply erase them from history. For example, at a 1938 re-enactment of the first fleet’s arrival, there were Aborigines...

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