This article was originally published on nitv.org.au (National Indigenous Television, Channel 34)
Danger! The left have taken over your minds and your TV sets. Well, no, it's actually the right. Former Labor leader turned right-wing commentator, Mark Latham recently launched a counter campaign to #ChangeTheDate, complete with television, radio and social media advertising set in a dystopian future. He and his cohort of outsiders are protesting to "save" the 26 January tradition that is at risk of being censored.
The sentiment behind Latham's #SaveAustraliaDay sounds attractive to many, probably because patriotic pleasantries like "a wonderful celebration of what makes Australia great" are easy to swallow. But a major flaw of this campaign is that it fails to address the key message of its competitor — 'the date'.
While the threat to national pride may be a hot take on the debate (it isn't), it derails the significance of the Australia Day anniversary and obscures the history that is ironically being advocated for.
And this is the problem. While a majority of Australians are committed to keeping the current date of Australia Day, an absurd number are unaware of why we even celebrate on that day.
What even happened on 26 January?
Like that "Hey Dad, who was the first Prime Minister of Australia?" commercial which confessed many of us couldn't tell you who Edmund Barton was, heaps of us are unable to tell you much about our national day either.
Last year a national survey revealed that most Australians can't tell our penal colonies from our Captain Cook arrivals, and only 43 per cent of the 1,043 participants were able to identify the historic event: the landing of the First Fleet led by Captain Arthur Phillip.
Even having the assistance of multiple choice with only seven possible answers, less than half of those who took the survey ticked the right box. NITV too asked the public what they thought the date commemorated and found similar results. But even "the landing", as the 'right answer', could be argued as a fairly roundabout recount of 26 January 1788.
The landing — but wait, there's more!
Many who claim that we are at risk of 'rewriting Australia's history' are often the ones doing the rewriting. The arguments to "save" 26 January because "that's when they came here", doesn't quite ring true.
In 1770 — 18 years before the First Fleet's arrival — Lieutenant James Cook effectively bagsed Australia for the Commonwealth.
Come 1788, 11 British ships were sent to set up a penal colony. Despite what's commonly thought, the First Fleet actually arrived to (what is now known as) Australia about a week before 26 January.
British convicts, marines, officers and their families and even some children of convicts, all arrived at 'Botany Bay' on the 18th. They didn't set up camp however, as Commander Arthur Phillip was a fusspot and thought the tough soil and lack of fresh water made for an unsuitable settlement.
He and some other officers went poking around the area and stumbled upon "one of the finest harbours in the world" north of Botany Bay. Phillip (a real Australian hero btw, who lived here a total of four years) bagsed it for Britain and named the mass inlet "Sydney Cove" after the English politician who appointed him as Commander of the Fleet (strangely, Lord Sydney never actually set foot in Australia). Dazzled by the cove, Phillip soon brought the rest of his convoy to the site.
Cut to 26 January. Yes, it's recorded that on this day the First Fleet did land at Sydney Cove. But when you consider just how many green and gold helium balloons the Hawke Government released during the Bicentennial celebrations, and the fact the Royals came all the way from the Northern Hemisphere to watch, it seems rather tame to commemorate anchorage. It must be something else… Hmm… Perhaps it's proclamation of British sovereignty?
Marking their territory like a very dignified dog urinating on a tree, on 26 January, Arthur Phillip and other marine officials planted the British flag into the ground and formally took possession of the land on behalf of the British Empire. Like buying Australiana merchandise with a Made in China sticker, Australia Day derives from another country (very unAustralian!). And unlike buying merchandise, in this case it was stolen.
How thick is the dust on our history books?
Let's face it, marketing imperialism is a tough spin by today's standards and to many, Australia Day is best enjoyed avoiding the terra nullius in the room. Australia is great at looking at what we've got, rather than looking at how we got there.
We have routinely remained tight-lipped on colonial issues where possible, so it comes as no surprise that we become ignorant to our brutalities and immoralities that were in the name of Western civilisation. Our systems and educators neglect them. For example, our school curriculum omits slavery and segregation in Australian history classes. We fail to teach students that the Stolen Generations continued into the 1970s. Our War Memorial neglects The Frontier Wars where tens of thousands lost their lives in battle. Historical monuments perpetuate the myth that Cook 'discovered' an uninhabited land. Our political leaders claim that "there was nothing but bush" before the British arrived. It's not common knowledge that Edmund Barton was our first Prime Minister, and even less commonly known that his first piece of legislation was the White Australia Policy. Celebrating Australia's history can feel — at times — like inheriting a fortune build on blood money.
Australia either has historical amnesia or serious trouble reconciling its past. Our patriotism rarely pays homage to our policies and protocols, and instead promotes conceptual ideals like 'lucky', 'mateship', 'hard-working', "ancestors fought for" and "look how far we've come". Rather than knowing what actually occurred on 26 January, we end up with people fighting to “Save Australia Day” on the basis of it being a lucky country.
Let's call Australia Day out for what it is — a birthday for Anglo-Australia.
The cost of "saving" Australia Day
The annual celebrations have become a very expensive birthday party. And the party bags? Guests are left carrying the legacy of invasion.
For a country so driven by progress, holding onto 26 January actually stagnates us. It limits our historical knowledge, our truths and our education. It coerces us into accepting the myth that there was "nothing here but bush", and what's more, that colonisation defines our nation.
The focus on this specific date erases the abundance of fascinating history that occurred years before Phillip ticked off a task list handed down by his employers. Histories that include the Makassan trade, bread making, infastructure and unique agriculture. Histories that debunk the idea that the foundations of modern-day Australia were laid by the West only.
If Latham's argument is that Australia Day importantly marks "the beginning of Western civilisation in our vast, great continent", by that logic, it needn't fall on 26 January. The start of Anglo-Australia is significant, but also easily disputed: Captain Cook and the Endeavour; the First Fleet pulling into the East Coast; Arthur Phillip hoisting the Union Jack; and then there's the formal establishment of the colony on 7 February. No one moment can place a finger on colonialism.
The date change is not motivated by the left's dytopian agenda, but rather that rejoicing over literal stolen land is fast falling out of fashion. As we learn more about our country's history, we advance Australia.
Australia Day doesn't need saving. Like all outdated material, it needs a rebranding. Let's just hope Latham's creative team won't be doing the advertising…
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