Thousands of people have demonstrated in cities across Australia in support of Indigenous peoples’ rights and protesting their country’s national holiday on the date the British colonial fleet entered Sydney Harbor more than two centuries ago.
In Sydney, the capital of New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – a large crowd gathered in the city’s central business district on Thursday, with some people carrying Aboriginal flags and chanting: “Australia Day is dead”.
Indigenous activist Paul Silva said the national holiday — which some label as “Invasion Day” — should be abolished.
“If someone broke into your home, killed your family and stole your land, I can 100 percent guarantee that your family would not celebrate that day,” he told the crowd.
“I don’t know how it makes sense for a citizen of this country to go out and have a barbecue and celebrate genocide,” he said.
Indigenous poet Lizzie Jarrett said Sydney was “ground zero for a genocide of First Nations people”.
“Do you think we’re angry? Wouldn’t you be angry? she asked the audience.
— Zac Crellin (@zacrellin) January 26, 2023
Indigenous Australians have lived on the Australian continent for at least 65,000 years, but have faced widespread discrimination and oppression since the arrival of the British in 1788. Australian historian Lyndall Ryan estimates that since British colonization began.
Currently, some 880,000 people of Australia’s 25 million people identify as Indigenous.
They were banned from voting in some states and territories until the 1960s and lagged behind other Australians on economic and social indicators in what the government calls ‘entrenched inequality’.
Their life expectancy is also years shorter than other Australians and they suffer a disproportionate rate of suicide, domestic violence and are much more likely to die in police custody.
In Australia’s capital Canberra, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese celebrated Australia Day with a flag-raising and citizenship ceremony where he honored the country’s indigenous people.
“Let us all recognize the unique privilege we have of sharing this continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture,” said the prime minister.
But while acknowledging it was a “difficult day” for Indigenous Australians, he said there were no plans to change the holiday.
A touching welcome to the country and a smoking ceremony this morning in Canberra. pic.twitter.com/cP72s5Rj4f
— Anthony Albanian (@AlboMP) January 25, 2023
An annual poll by market research firm Roy Morgan released this week found that nearly two-thirds of Australians believe January 26 should be regarded as “Australia Day”, largely unchanged from a year ago. The rest think it should be “Invasion Day”.
Amid the debate, some companies have adopted flexibility around observance of the holiday. Australia’s largest telecommunications company, Telstra, this year gave its staff the option to work on January 26 and take another day off instead.
“For many First Nations peoples, Australia Day … marks a watershed moment where lives were lost, culture was devalued and connections between people and places destroyed,” Telstra CEO Vicki Brady wrote on LinkedIn.
Protests against Australia Day also took place in other Australian state capitals, including Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.
Sarah Clarke of Al Jazeera, who covered the Brisbane meeting, said the momentum for abolishing Australia Day has grown over the years.
“People here say this is a day of mourning,” she said. “They are protesting the celebrations of modern Australia, on a day when they believe there was a massive displacement of the First Nations population. This group is certainly growing in number. Polls show that the younger generations are increasingly supportive of this.”
This year’s holiday also comes as Albania’s centre-left Labor government is planning a referendum on recognizing indigenous peoples in the country’s constitution and requiring consultation with them on decisions affecting their lives.
The public will vote on the amendment in a binding referendum later this year – dubbed the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.
There is currently no mention of Indigenous Australians in the constitution, which was passed in 1901. And the proposal to recognize Indigenous Australians in the charter was a pledge made by the Labor Party at a general election last May, when there was an end came to nearly a decade of conservative Liberal-National coalition government.
But amending the constitution is difficult and requires a majority vote in a majority of states.
The feat has occurred just eight times in 44 attempts since the federation was founded in 1901.
A successful referendum would bring Australia in line with Canada, New Zealand and the United States in formally recognizing Indigenous people.
Some Indigenous Australians have also opposed the proposal.
Several people at the Invasion Day rally in Sydney carried a banner that read: “Vote no to the referendum. We deserve more than a vote.”
In Melbourne, Indigenous activist Uncle Gary Foley said “the vote” would only be “cosmetic”.
“Like lipstick on a pig, it won’t address the deep underlying issues that still permeate Australian society and that primary issue is white Australian racism,” he said.