Three Australian flags the Torres Strait, Australia and Aboriginal flags
Three Australian flags the Torres Strait, Australia and Aboriginal flags

OUR SAY: Alternative facts show problem with Australia Day

A recent letter to the editor espoused the "true meaning" of Australia Day, opining that there was compelling reasons for the date to be January 26 that had nothing to do with the European settlement.

The information, based from an article on Veteranweb Network by Ray Payne OAM, which has been turned into a Facebook post spread across the internet (though the original article cannot be found by Google), states that the dates of the First Fleet's arrival are wrong, and instead the celebration is based on the introduction of the Nationality and Citizenship Act, first enacted on January 26, 1948.

Unfortunately, like so many things spread on the internet, the claim does not stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, the opinion states that it appears the anti-26th date appears to be based on Captain Cook's arrival, and goes on to say that it wasn't the First Fleet - which it states landed on January 18, 1788.

According to an article conducted by news wire AAP's FactCheck, Professor Frank Bongiorno, from the Australian National University's School of History, told AAP FactCheck in an email that Australia Day is celebrated on January 26 to mark the date the First Fleet, led by Captain Arthur Phillip, arrived in Sydney Cove in 1788.

He is backed up by constitutional expert Professor Helen Irving, who confirmed that January 18 was a day of significance, but not the day they landed at what became Sydney.

"The first boat of the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay on 18 January, 1788, but the Fleet then moved to Port Jackson (what became Sydney), where on 26 January 1788, the British flag was raised," she told AAP FactCheck.

"It was the First Fleet's arrival in 1788 that was marked at (the bicentenary) in 1988, not Cook's arrival."

And if looking for further evidence, the National Library holds a historical journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth, a surgeon who sailed as part of the First Fleet on the Lady Penrhyn, his writings chronicling the journey from Portsmouth to the new colony.

"26 January … about 7 o'clock p.m. we reach the mouth of Broken Bay, Port Jackson, and sailed up into the cove where the settlement is to be made … the finest terraces lawns and grottos with distinct plantations of the tallest and most stately trees I ever saw in any noble man's gardens in England cannot exceed in beauty those which nature now presented to our view," the journal reads.

It seems an undeniable confirmation that January 26 was the day that Australia was officially settled by the English, and it provided much fodder for years to come for the celebration of our national day.

According to the official Australia Day website, the history of an Australia Day celebration began as far back as 1800, when early almanacs and calendars and the Sydney Gazette began referring to January 26 as First Landing Day or Foundation Day. In Sydney, celebratory drinking, and later anniversary dinners became customary, especially among emancipists.

In 1871, The Australian Natives' Association, formed as a friendly society to provide medical, sickness and funeral benefits to the native-born of European descent, became a keen advocate from the 1880s of federation of the Australian colonies within the British Empire, and of a national holiday on January 26.

Their campaign continued through to 1930, when their Victorian branch began a campaign to have January 26 celebrated throughout Australia as Australia Day on a Monday, making a long weekend. The Victorian government agreed with the proposal in 1931, the other states and territories following by 1935.

They go on to state that in 1946 The Australian Natives' Association prompted the formation in Melbourne of an Australia Day Celebrations Committee (later known as the Australia Day Council) to educate the public about the significance of Australia Day. Similar bodies emerged in the other states, which in rotation, acted as the Federal Australia Day Council.

Finally, definitive proof of the fact that Australia Day was celebrated before the enactment of the Citizenship Act on January 26, 1949, comes from the mouth of the man who enacted the legislation, Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell.

"When this bill becomes an act, it will be proclaimed on Australia Day, the 26th of January, 1949, and the occasion will he a memorable one," he said as quoted in Hansard.

Not as Australia Day, ON Australia Day. Professor Irving reinforced the point when speaking to AAP.

"The date was not chosen to celebrate the proclamation of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948," she said.

"Rather, the 26th of January was chosen as the date of the proclamation of the Act because it was already celebrated as Australia Day."

There are further issues with the original assertion about what the legislation actually ended up doing.

Prof Irving said everyone born in Australia before the Nationality Act 1920 was already considered a British subject under common law.

"The 1920 Nationality Act simply put this common law principle into legislation for the first time," she said.

New Australian citizens have their citizenship conferred at an Australia Day citizenship ceremony.
New Australian citizens have their citizenship conferred at an Australia Day citizenship ceremony.

The legislation in 1949 simply added that people could for the first time become Australian citizens, in an encouragement of European migration after the World War II. In fact, these Australian citizens were also still considered British citizens until it was revoked in 1984.

For Indigenous citizens, while they were now considered Australian citizens, they were still subject, according to Professor Irving, to many special laws that applied to them as Aboriginal Australians, and these laws were often oppressive and discriminatory.

It took until 1962 until Indigenous Australians who were not given previous exemptions (from military service mostly) were allowed to vote, and the 1967 referendum established their right to be counted in the census.

Furthermore, the 1949 legislation was used as a catalyst for the much maligned White Australia policy, and while Mr Calwell's infamous quote in parliament about "Two Wongs don't make a White" is often used out of context, his support for the policy was strong, and was one of the factors that had him replaced by Gough Whitlam in the 1960s.

It's hardly something to celebrate.

So we're back to square one: that Australia Day is still a celebration of the landing by the First Fleet at Port Jackson and establishing a settlement. It is the same day that for our Indigenous community, their land and their culture was invaded by a European settlement.

And regardless of what you think, that is sentiment that is backed by established historical fact, and remains a genuine point of pain.

A protest outside Parliament house.
A protest outside Parliament house.

If Australia Day is truly to be a day where all Australians come together, as it is supposed to be, why do we gaslight our Indigenous population in telling them their opinion doesn't matter?

Why do we spread stories that, even if not intended, tell us that we shouldn't worry about the naysayers, because they've got it all wrong?

Instead, why don't we find a truly national day that we can all get behind, and truly become a nation that, as the anthem now says, is one and free.


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