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12 minutes

Rethinking 26 January

Last edited: December 11, 2023

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as many non-Indigenous Australians, believe that 26 January cannot be a day of national celebration as it marks the date of invasion and the start of genocide and dispossession in Australia. The real story of these lands starts 60,000 years ago.

For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 26 January is a reminder of the pain and suffering of their ancestors, the theft of their land, the enormous loss of life in the Frontier Wars and the intergenerational trauma that comes with that history.

Celebrating on this day ignores the historical atrocities committed against First Nations Peoples and obscures the many uncomfortable truths of our shared history. But it also overlooks the many ways in which colonisation is ongoing – the grave injustices of Black deaths in custody, ever-growing gaps in health outcomes and life expectancy, youth justice statistics, destruction of sacred sites and contemporary child removal that our systems and structures continue to permit and in some cases promote.

In recent years, awareness around the pain of 26 January is building. Many local councils—including City of Melbourne, Geelong, Yarra, Moreland, Darebin, City of Sydney and Sydney’s Inner West, Launceston and Flinders Island in Tasmania as well as Fremantle, WA – have cancelled and/or replaced their 26 January events, or voiced formal support for changing the date. These changes are welcomed.

Woolwonga, Gurindji woman Susan Moylan-Coombs says celebrating on 26 January “feels like pressing on a bruise to First Nations people”.




After the disappointing and resounding failure of the Voice to Parliament Referendum in October 2023, many have spoken out about the urgent need to collectively confront the brutal truth of Australia’s past and present, with some voices claiming that the era of reconciliation is dead.

For others, 26 January is a reminder of creative resistance and survival, of the power of Black collectives and the lifeways of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that have and will continue to flourish despite colonial attempts at elimination and control.

At ANTAR we believe that education and advocacy is the driving force for change. We stand with First Nations advocates and aim to educate Australians on the arguments for changing, abolishing or reframing the date.

Broadly speaking, there are three main lines of thought in the national conversation around 26 January. They are outlined below along with a summary of their main arguments.

Change the Date

Polls show there is increasing support amongst Australians to change the date of our national holiday in order to avoid celebrating on a date that marks the start of First Nations dispossession and suffering.

The main argument behind the ‘change the date’ sentiment is that a national day of commemoration and celebration is important, but that it shouldn’t take place on a day that offends and harms many First Nations people.

Noongar woman Daniella Borg is in favour of changing the date, saying:

From my perspective, celebrating the unity of our nation is incredibly important – just not on January 26. For my mob, this day represents the birth of injustice to First Nations Peoples: displacement from country, the fragmentation of families akin to genocide, and the denial of rights and culture… If the date was changed, we could move forward and celebrate Australia Day. Together.

Arrente woman and journalist Karla Grant agrees, saying:

…it’s great that we’re having this conversation about changing the date. It’s been going on for a number of years now, and I think that it’s good to talk about where we are as a nation, what that day means to us and whether we should move it to another day. A day where both black and white in this country can celebrate together as a unified nation.

For Wirlomin Noongar writer Claire Coleman, changing or abolishing the date is a simple and incremental change that could lead to a greater shift:

Changing the date or eliminating the celebration entirely, stopping the celebration of the anniversary of the events on January 26 is an easy change, something that a government could implement in one fell swoop.  Why should we not fight for a simple change that might decrease the racism of the country, if only a little, and will almost certainly reduce somewhat our trauma. Why not change the country a little at a time?

Abolish the Date

The call to abolish the date is grounded in a broader critique of the Australian settler colonial project. In other words, what do we really have to celebrate about a nationhood project that is rooted in First Nations dispossession and death?

In this line of thinking, changing the date doesn’t adequately recognise the pain and suffering that British colonisation has inflicted upon First Nations Peoples, nor recognise the ways in which the structures of colonisation persist. Advocates for abolishing the date believe that engaging in endless debate about a specific date is a distraction and avoids engaging in necessary truth-telling about the arrival of the First Fleet and the conflict and violence toward First Nations peoples that is ongoing.

According to Larrakia, Tiwi, Chinese Malaysian and Muslim writer and community organiser Dr Eugenia Flynn, changing the date only seeks to further entrench Australian nationalism and moves the celebration of unfinished business to another date.

The idea that we could simply move Australia Day to another date where we could celebrate ‘for all Australians’ is one that completely denies the ongoing oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Central to the idea of ‘all Australians’ is the notion of cultural diversity and inclusivity, and the assimilation of migrants into the Australian narrative. Such a narrative extols the virtues of an Australia that is tolerant of non-white migrants – so long as those non-white migrants are grateful to Australia and celebratory of it. Tolerance, here, is predicated on the denial of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty and the centring of White Australia as the arbiter of who gets tolerated and who does not.

Dr Eugenia Flynn

Fitzroy Black Professor Tony Birch is an outspoken critic of the Change the Date campaign, arguing that it encourages a collective forgetting of a history of violence toward First Nations peoples:

My criticism of the “Change the Date” campaign is that it suggests that the offence being caused by current Australia Day celebrations can be reduced to the narrowness of the date in question – January 26. The logic of such an argument would suggest that if we were to return to July 15, or March 29 even (my birthday), the history of violence towards Indigenous people would become less offensive? Or forgotten perhaps?

Birch writes further:

A change to the date of an unreflected national pageant will do nothing to shake the collective psyche from a pathological need to wave a flag dominated by the symbol of Imperialism and bloody conquest.

Likewise, Gamilaroi man and founder and CEO of IndigenousX Luke Pearson explains that what we need is not a new date to celebrate Australia, but an Australia worth celebrating:

…there are too many people who seem to think that the problem with Australia Day rests solely on the day we celebrate it, not with what we are celebrating… I don’t really feel that Australia, where we sit right now, is worth celebrating. And it’s not just the actions of 230 years ago, or a century ago, or 50 or even 5 years ago that are problematic. It is those things that exist today that are so problematic that I couldn’t in good faith celebrate our nation as a whole. A lot of that is tied up in our denial of history and our collective refusal to make any meaningful steps to reconcile it, but it extends beyond that too.

Reframe the Date

The third position on 26 January is to reframe the day from one of national celebration to something more truthful and urgent: namely, truth-telling, treaty, mourning, invasion and survival.

Senator Lidia Thorpe, a proud Djab Wurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman, believes that Australia Day should represent a day of mourning and healing for First Nations Peoples. Thorpe writes:

Since James Cook first set foot at Kamay (Botany Bay), there have been at least 270 massacres of First Nations peoples in this country. We will never know the true number of casualties – only that many thousands of First Nations people across this nation were massacred in numerous frontier wars, over many decades, often in cold blood. Today, Blak deaths in custody only serve to remind us that this period of violence and injustice has not yet finished. That’s why, for Aboriginal people across this country, 26 January marks a day of mourning.

For Thorpe, this day of mourning is not for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples alone, but offers a meaningful opportunity for non-Indigenous Australians to demonstrate their solidarity:

… we can’t do this alone. We need all Australians to come on this journey of truth telling with us. Ahead of this year’s Invasion Day, we’re asking you to turn up for us. To stand with us – to turn this day of mourning into a day of healing so we can move forward together as a nation.

The history of a Day of Mourning traces back to 1938 when it was first declared by a group of First Nations people who marched in silent protest from Town Hall to the Australian Hall in Elizabeth St, continuing the activist work of the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) and the Aborigines Progressive Association (APA).

They wrote:

The 26th of January, 1938, is not a day of rejoicing for Australia’s Aborigines; it is a day of mourning. This festival of 150 years’ so-called “progress” in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country. You came here only recently, and you took our land away from us by force.  You have almost exterminated our people, but there are enough of us remaining to expose the humbug of your claim, as white Australians, to be a civilised, progressive, kindly and humane nation’.

On this first Day of Mourning, a Ten Point Plan was submitted to the Prime Minister at the time, Joseph Lyons, calling for wide-ranging changes to laws, policies and practices affecting First Nations people. As Claire Coleman has pointed out, this began the Government’s habit of ignoring any requests and plans tendered by First Nations people.

For Arrernte feminist and writer Celeste Liddle, reframing the day to focus on Invasion is crucial:

Australia Day has always been Invasion Day to me. It was the day where, as a kid growing up in Canberra, I was most likely to see people calling for land rights… In my reckoning, until there is a treaty there will be no other date to celebrate the birth of this nation on. I much prefer the idea of Invasion Day remaining a day of Indigenous protest and the assertion of sovereignty.

Likewise, Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman and academic Chelsea Watego chooses to reframe the day as Invasion Day. She writes:

So how do I commemorate Invasion Day? I march. I march not because I’m bitter or stuck in the past, or ungrateful for the privileges I enjoy today. Rather, I march in remembrance for those who lost their lives simply defending their own land and people. I march with pride and pay tribute to the innumerable acts of resistance of our warriors and the ongoing resilience of our communities. I march with my children so they will never forget about who they are, where they come from and how they came to be where they are today.

For Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman and creative Nakkiah Lui, reframing 26 January as Mourning Day is about piercing the ‘blameless myth’ that underpins the making of so-called Australia:

I’m afraid that if we give up on protesting Australia Day, the blameless myth will continue – becoming richer and fuller, until we no longer remember the past. The Australian anthem, Advanced Australia Fair, says “For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share”. In the anthem you’ll find no mention of stolen land – everything is young and new. And as I watch people around the country celebrate the myth that is Australia, I am given the option to either join in or shut up. Well I refuse to celebrate, and every Australia Day my heart is broken as I am reminded that in the eyes of many, I am not welcome on my own land.

Still others prefer to emphasise the survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and culture in the face of colonisation, dispossession and ongoing injustice. By reframing 26 January as Survival Day, we are asked to acknowledge and celebrate the resilience and endurance of First Nations Peoples and their continued resistance to and refusal of the violence of settler colonialism in Australia.

On 26 January 1988, the Bicentenary was celebrated at Botany Bay in NSW with a re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet. This re-enactment was met with opposition from a group of First Nations individuals and non-Indigenous allies who gathered at La Perouse to protest. On the same day, more than 40,000 people took part in a march from Redfern Oval to Hyde Park to celebrate First Nations survival, demand land rights and expose the violent history being celebrated on 26 January. After the march, many returned to La Perouse and Kurnell for an all-night festival to signify new beginnings and celebrate connections with the land. By 1992, this celebration had been formalised into the Survival Day concert, held annually at La Perouse.

No matter the framing we choose, Wiradjuri man and journalist Stan Grant asks us this:

On this Australia Day/Invasion Day/Survival Day – however we see it – is this nation all it should be?

The Redfern Speech: 30 Years On Read
Self-Determination Read
Sovereignty Read
What is Treaty? Read
Survival Day
Survival Day History of the Date Read More
Survival Day Not a date to celebrate Read More
Survival Day Survival Day Events Listing Read More