I’ll be working this January 26 and here’s why

January 26 is not a day I wish to celebrate. For me, it represents the beginning of the destruction of thousands of years of culture, tradition and heritage. This opinion can be quite divisive. I think it helps to look at the history of the day and reflect on what we could be doing to more appropriately, acknowledge and celebrate what it means to live and work in Australia.

The concept of ‘Australia Day’ has been around for 85 years but was only made a public holiday in 1994. Before 1935, the states and territories celebrated on different days and used different terminology such as ‘Founders Day’, ‘Proclamation Day’ and ‘Anniversary Day’.

January 26 represents the day that Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack flag in Sydney Cove, officially symbolising the beginning of British colonisation of Australia.

The date of January 26 was selected after years of petitioning from the Australian Natives Association – a group of white men born in Australia. While they were progressive in many ways and lobbied for women’s and worker’s rights and using Aboriginal place names, they also were very much in support of the White Australia Policy – a policy that effectively stopped all non-European immigration into the country and that contributed to the development of a racially insulated white society.

The Australia Day Council describes the day as:

“Australia Day, 26 January, is the day to reflect on what it means to be Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia and to acknowledge our history.”

For many people, this date is not one for celebration as it signifies the beginning of dispossession, disease epidemics, frontier violence, destruction of culture, exploitation, abuse, separation of families and subjection to policies of extreme social control. While the date celebrates our British history, many feel it excludes and marginalises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are still suffering from the intergenerational trauma caused by colonisation.

Protests around the day go back as far as 1938, when 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people came from across Australia to march in Sydney and petition instead for a ‘Day of mourning’. The name ‘Invasion Day’ gained national prominence during the 1988 protests, and the first ‘Survival Day’ concert was held in 1992. Both Invasion Day and Survival Day are terms frequently used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The ‘change the date’ campaign has gained much prominence in the past few years with organisations, communities and individuals taking their own action. There are many public rallies or events that focus on recognising and supporting Indigenous culture and history which people can attend in support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

On New Year’s Eve 2020, Scott Morrison announced the wording of the Australian national anthem had officially changed from “young and free” to “one and free”, in recognition of the tens of thousands of years long history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This may seem like a small change, but the positive impact of symbolic gestures like this shouldn’t be underestimated. If we can change the national anthem to better recognise and celebrate contemporary Australia and acknowledge the full extent of our history, then why not the date of Australia Day?

KPMG is one of a growing number of organisations that have a floating public holiday policy. KPMG people can work on Australia Day and take the time in lieu, to celebrate a cultural or religious day more relevant to their beliefs and traditions.

On January 26 this year, as with previous years, I will be logging on and continuing to work on implementing the commitments in our recently launched Reconciliation Action Plan. For me, this is how I can best acknowledge and celebrate what it means to be Australian, to continue to contribute towards my community and help to bring others along on the journey with me.

What to know more? Here are some additional resources:

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