How To Resolve The Australia Day Date “Debate”

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution.

invasion day australia day

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Here we go again, Australia Day — the day, from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective, where a nation celebrates the invasion and genocide of our country and people. This should be every Australians perspective. It is the truth.

But it seems that my people’s proclamation that 26 January is a day for mourning the truth of our past, rather than a day for patriotic revelry on our ancestors’ graves, only serves to fuel the fervour of the ignorant.

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, responding to journalists asking him about Cricket Australia’s decision to not refer to Australia Day as part of its Big Bash League promotions, said Australia Day is,

“[…] all about acknowledging how far we’ve come. When those twelve ships turned up in Sydney, all those years ago, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either.”

Cricket Australia should be applauded. But the Prime Minister’s comments were fittingly ignorant. And he was historically incorrect.

Firstly, it was eleven vessels that reached the eastern shores of this great southern continent, almost two-hundred and thirty-three years ago – not twelve. And just a minor detail: there were no Australians on those ships, nor was there any place named Sydney. In 1788, it was Aboriginal land with Aboriginal names. It always was Aboriginal land, well before Britain existed. And it always will be Aboriginal land.

In any case, comparing a bit of seasickness to how a peoples will feel about being dispossessed of their lands, along with the murder and rape of their people for over two-hundred years is a bit out of touch with reality. Fortunately, it is out of touch with Australian sentiment, too. The Australian public are consistently indicating they would like to make amends for our past.

As each year goes by, the numbers of non-Indigenous allies who march with us on 26 January is swelling. On the streets for the #BlackLivesMatter protests last year, across Australia, over a million people walked with us. Ours is a growing movement.

While momentum is with us, I fear that our protests, our marches, and now countless annual Invasion Day op-eds from Blak authors like myself is becoming a ritual, rather than a focused campaign for change. This debate tends to perpetuate itself, because of the broad range of views and a lack of a coherent and self-determining First Nations Voice.

While some of us declare 26 January as a Day of Mourning, others decry it as Invasion Day, and some still celebrate it as Survival Day. Then there is the debate on what we would change the date to. There is the argument to change it to the 25th of January, to mark what Australia was before the invader’s arrival, while others say May 8! Because it sounds like ‘mate!’ On and on the opinions of what day we should celebrate go on, including those who simply demand we abolish Australia Day. What a spectacle.

It is time we shifted this debate to how we can resolve it, which brings me back to the First Nations Voice I mentioned.

I am not talking about my voice. Me arguing for my opinion will not resolve this debate. It is the same for any other Indigenous public figure. It certainly does not matter what an all-white panel on a breakfast show thinks. And I am sorry to break it to you, but your opinion does not matter either – as an individual. The only way we can reach a satisfactory conclusion to the question of who we are as Australians, and how we can celebrate it, is to achieve the priority proposal in the Uluru Statement from the Heart – ‘We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution.’

Simply put, and quite logical if you think about it: It is between First Nations and the Australian nation state to resolve the 26 January debacle. The Australian nation state has a voice — the Federal and State parliaments. But First Nations people do not. We were not afforded one at Federation in 1901, though any non-racist would agree, we should have. And every time we have built an effective collective Voice, a hostile government has destroyed it.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a unique consensus position reached in the heart of the continent on 26 May 2017. It came from an unprecedented process of First Nations Dialogues covering the entire country and adjacent islands. We gathered with the cultural authority of our regions to decide how we would invite the Australian people to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait people’s rightful place in this country, and in doing so, we considered the many lessons from the past – including the fate of our previous collective voices.

We called for a constitutionally enshrined Voice (a guaranteed representative body) because it will unite us, and because with constitutionally protection, hostile governments will not be able to silence it. With the establishment of a First Nations Voice, we will have the ‘how’ we can properly negotiate a date to celebrate a country that has finally healed, sovereign to sovereign, walking in two worlds, the longest surviving culture on the planet.

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Thomas Mayor is a Torres Strait Islander, a wharfie and union official for the Maritime Union of Australia. He has tirelessly advocated for the proposals in the Uluru Statement, and is the author of two best-selling books. The first book, ‘Finding the Heart of the Nation – the journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth’, tells his story, the story of the Uluru Statement and the remarkable people that he met on his campaigning journey. A children’s version of the book, ‘Finding our Heart’, was published in June 2020.