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Is Australia Day Approaching a Tipping Point?

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The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter with the Australia bureau.

On Thursday—Australia’s national holiday, known as Australia Day—my local coffee shop in Melbourne was packed. But as they sipped coffees and chowed down on breakfast burritos, many of the mostly young, mostly white customers made their feelings about the day be known via their choice of clothing: the same red, black and yellow T-shirt, with the slogan “ Always Was, Always Will Be.

The full phrase—”always was, always will be Aboriginal land”—is an iconic rallying call in Australia’s Indigenous land rights movement. It refers to how Aboriginal land was never ceded to colonizing European forces; how Indigenous Australians continue to face dispossession, structural inequality and marginalisation; and how First Nations Australians retain a deep connection to the lands that were taken from them.

The ideas that the slogan represents are especially pressing on Jan. 26. The date has been commemorated nationally as Australia’s national holiday since 1994 and marks the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove in 1788, when around 1,400 people, half of them convicts, arrived from Britain.

Those arrivals would begin a two-century process of the wholesale transformation of Australia, starting with the raising of a flag on land that the British described as “Terra Nullius,” or nobody’s land.

For many Aboriginal Australians, Jan. 26 is a day of sorrow and is known as “Survival Day” or “Invasion Day.” It is seen as the symbolic beginning of a state program of theft, massacre, imprisonment and forced assimilation. As far back as 1938, Aboriginal leaders have been calling for Jan. 26 to be known as a “National Day of Mourning,” commemorating “the white man’s seizure of our country.”

Increasingly, many non-Indigenous Australians agree. Although a majority of Australians believe Australia Day should remain on Jan. 26 — latest polling suggests that about 60 percent are happy with the date as it is—that number has been falling. Twenty years ago, it was closer to 80 percent. And among those under 35, a clear majority think the country should not celebrate Australia Day on Jan. 26.

Some have suggested changing the holiday to another date, such as Jan. 1 (the date Australia was federated), the fourth Friday in January (because it would make for a good long weekend) or May 8 (because of the abbreviation M8 sounds like “mate”,

Some state governments, as well as many large Australian companies, have given staff the option of working on Jan. 26 and instead taking another day off, so as not to observe the holiday at all. And even those hardly given to radical action, like top executives at white-collar firms, have expressed their ambivalence about the date.

Andy Penn, the former chief executive of Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, said he would not choose to work on the holiday, and he called for other business leaders to speak out about it. “I think CEOs can see things in society where there needs to be change, and advocate for that change, even if not everybody agrees with it,” he told The Age newspaper.

In a lengthy post on LinkedIn, Adam Powick, the chief executive officer at Deloitte Australia, acknowledged the “shadow over our national day.” The question of whether one should take the day off, he wrote, “aptly reflects the contention and divisiveness that has come to symbolize our national day.”

This year’s Australia Day took place amid an increasingly contentious national conversation about an upcoming referendum on creating an Indigenous advisory body to work with the government on Aboriginal issues.

While some would simply change the date, others maintain that the Australia Day holiday must be abolished altogether. On Thursday, Invasion Day protests were held in major cities across the country. At one rally, held in Melbourne, Lidia Thorpe, a senator for the Green Party and an Aboriginal woman, described race relations between white and Indigenous Australians as a “war.”

“They are still killing us. They are still killing our babies,” she said. “What do we have to celebrate in our country?”

Here are the week’s stories.


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