Australia Day: Nothing to Celebrate

The following text is a reworked article originally published by Collective Action (Melbourne) in 2017. As such, the statistics and reports referred to will be somewhat dated. Sadly, things remain virtually the same. 
The author is now a member of Geelong Anarchist Communists.

The National Australia Day Council describes Australia Day as “a day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation,” and a “day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the generations to come”.

But for many January 26 is no date to celebrate, and to fully understand why, we must recognise the price of this “great nation’s” achievements over the past 234 years.

The 26th of January 2022 will mark 234 years since the British invaded what is now known as Australia. It was on this date in 1788 that Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack for the first time in Sydney Cove, symbolising British occupation.

When Australia was invaded, British colonisers declared this continent terra nullius: “nobody’s land”; a law which describes territory that has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state. Terra Nullius was granted despite the land already being occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations for over 60, 000 years.

Despite acts of resistance, Australia was brutally colonised as British settlers stole Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land and massacred communities.

The Frontier Wars spanned the first 140 years of colonisation. When the invasion commenced there were approximately 750,000 people living in 350 distinct nations on the Australian landmass. By 1900, only 93,200 Indigenous people survived. At least twenty thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed in battles and massacres from Hobart to the Kimberley. In contrast, approximately two and half thousand colonists were killed as Aboriginal people resisted invasion. 

Throughout the twentieth century, the Australian state continued to dehumanise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and commit acts of genocide under new laws. A policy called ‘Smooth the Dying Pillow’ allowed indiscriminate killings well into the 1930’s under the assumption that what was left of the Aboriginal population would die out.

In 1901 the Australian state introduced ‘the White Australia policy’, making Anglocentric whiteness the ultimate marker of citizenship. This meant First Nations peoples could not vote, own property, receive wages for work, travel, or receive legal representation. Prior to the 1967 Referendum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples weren’t counted as citizens for the census, but rather were categorised as part of the national flora and fauna. 

Until 1970 Aboriginal workers were for all intents and purposes enslaved. They sold their labour power to white men but were denied access to their wages which were often stolen by the state.

Today colonisation and structural racism are not things of the past. Looking at recent statistics:

Despite a formal apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, the Australian state continues to dehumanise Aboriginal peoples through institutionalised racism and state violence. 60 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are taken from their families every month, making the number of removals higher now than during the Stolen Generations period. 48% of juveniles in detention are Aboriginal, and like Dylan Voller, many experience physical abuse and trauma.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are massively overrepresented in Australia’s criminal justice system. Though only representing 3% of the total population, more than 28% of Australia’s prison population are Aboriginal. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners make up 86% of the prison population.

Between 2000 and 2007 there were 701 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in police custody. The release of CCTV footage at the time of Ms Dhu’s death in 2014 highlight the disregard for her welfare and right to medical treatment. 

In the past decade the continued forced closures of Aboriginal communities created higher rates of homelessness and poverty for those affected. The removals also sever an intrinsic connection to country known to be important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing.   

Day of Mourning, Invasion Day, Survival Day

In 1938, on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the British and the beginning of colonisation, the first ‘Day of Mourning Protest’ was held. Activists marched silently through the streets and held a conference for equal rights and citizenship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. ‘Australia Day’ has since been rejected and renamed by many as either ‘Invasion Day’ which mourns the invasion of British colonisers, or ‘Survival Day’ which recognises the continued survival of First Nations people.

Celebrating Australia Day, a day which rejoices in the European invasion, is only appealing to those who do not know, or those who do not care, about Australia’s black history. It is absurd and insensitive to hold a day of patriotic celebration on a day that marks the beginning of the genocide and dispossession of the owners of this land.

The National Australia Day Council recognises this day as a day to recommit to making Australia better for generations to come. Celebrating this day however, no matter the pretense, eradicates history and identity.

The bourgeois myth of Australia is that the nation is founded on both multiculturalism and a progressive nationalism, but pointedly leaves out the brutal massacres of Indigenous peoples and the dispossession of land and culture. But the revision of history is just the basis for the whitewashing. The reality is that Australia was settled in the early interests of British capitalism, as communities were destroyed to make room for pastoral capitalists. After the early colony was founded, capitalist accumulation accelerated, subjecting First Nations peoples who weren’t already killed to conditions of near slavery and pillaging the land to further capitalist interests. 

In the face of this history it is not enough that events are no longer called ‘Australia Day Parties’, or that government and sporting events often begin with Acknowledgements of Country. Though these gestures recognise the extreme inappropriateness of holding a celebration on this day, they do little to combat the continued oppression of Aborignal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Justice is not only an ideal, it is made real by changes in material conditions. Powerful resistance is constituted by action; from the early Frontier Wars to the Pilbara Strike, the campaign to save The Block to today’s Invasion Day rallies.

I ask you to do more than boycott Australia Day. Instead, show solidarity by organising alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to demand justice and liberation for all. As Lilla Watson said:

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land that we organise on, the Waddawurrung people of the Kulin nations, and pay our respects to elders both past and present, and also extend that respect to any Aboriginal people reading this article. We also acknowledge that this land was stolen and that sovereignty was never ceded.

Further Reading
Foley, G. (1999). Whiteness and Blackness in the struggle for self-determination 
Moreton-Robinson, A. (2004). Whiteness, epistemology & Indigenous representation. In Morton-Robinson, A. (Ed.). Whitening Race: Essays in social and cultural criticism.

Feature image credit: @ironmonkeyphoto

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: