Eighty-five years after Aboriginal activists marked January 26 with their Day of Mourning protests, the credibility of the date as one of celebration is now dead.
While debate about it is now mainstream, for many young people the question has already been decided. For them, the fact that modern Australia emerged from a colonial-settler society founded on the violent dispossession of First Nations peoples is a self-evident fact.
Denying, or seeking to paper over, that truth is both ludicrous and insulting.
More than 5000 people were surveyed in November 2021 as part of a Deakin University Contemporary History survey. It asked: “Is January 26 the right date for something called Australia Day?” It found that 60% wanted to continue celebrating Australia Day on January 26.
However, more than half of those born between 1986 and 2002 think we should not celebrate Australia Day on January 26.
This is confirmed by other studies indicating a similar generational divide on this question. It is also reflected in the tens of thousands of young people who have joined the resurgent Invasion Day/Survival Day events in the past few years.
It’s a moral and political dividing line — much like the Vietnam War was for young people 50 years ago.
Will this outpouring of support for First Nations people be funnelled into relatively minimal and symbolic measures like “changing the date”?
Or will it flow over into supporting campaigns that push for more fundamental reforms that get at the heart of First Nations’ dispossession, such as Treaty, real land rights, deaths in custody and Aboriginal control over Aboriginal affairs?
Sections of the ruling elite understand what is at stake and are already trying to massage the outcome in a way that does the symbolic stuff without disrupting the status quo.
A good example is The West Australian, part of Seven West Media, owned by media and mining magnate Kerry Stokes. The West ran a vociferous six-month campaign in 2016 attacking Fremantle Council for daring to cancel its Australia Day fireworks display out of respect for the opinions of the local Noongar community.
Then, three years ago, The West did an about-face and declared in an editorial that a change of date was necessary and inevitable.
This 180-degree turn is a credit to the Aboriginal activists who never wavered from using January 26 to tell the truth about dispossession; it shows just how significant the shift in public opinion has become.
It also indicates that sections of Australian big business, and the opinion-makers and politicians in their pockets, want to get ahead of the curve and control the conversation.
They might now favour a new date that pretends to unite us in all our cultural diversity — billionaires and workers alike — in support of a mythical “national interest”.
But that certainly does not extend to a desire to right the wrongs, or support for treaty with land rights.
There is no mention in The West’s editorials about the destruction of the Murjuga rock art, the oldest petroglyphs in the world, by a rampant gas industry. Nor any mention that it's also the site of the infamous 1868 Flying Foam Massacre, in which an unknown number of Jaburara people were killed.
The Labor Party, in opposition and in government, has been a weather vane: it has sought to relate to the shift in sentiment, while also trying to avoid being wedged on its right flank. It is still so cautious it will not even endorse a change of date.
This reminds us of the way it responded to the campaign for marriage equality: it first opposed it as unnecessary, then sat on the fence and only finally supported it after the movement had built to the point where the decisive shift in public opinion had taken place. Then it tried to claim the glory for itself.
We see a similar pattern in the way Labor has approached an Indigenous “Voice to Parliament”. Its challenge is how to respond to the desire for change, without raising expectations that there will actually be that much change at all.
That balancing act is, after all, Labor’s perennial dilemma.
A Voice to Parliament can be a small stepping stone towards more profound justice for Indigenous people, providing it does not in any way include concessions on sovereignty that would then undermine future negotiations around Treaty (or treaties).
Clarity on this is hard because Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is refusing to release details about what the Voice will actually do and how it will come into existence.
Furthermore, profound change will require a spread and intensification of grassroots campaigning. By itself, the Voice will not achieve this: if it could then Labor would not have proposed it.
The rejection of January 26 continues to gather momentum. Every day, there are new expressions — by sporting teams, cultural institutions, local governments and others. It may not be united by a series of concrete proposals that go beyond symbolic steps, but neither is it limited to January 26.
The Australian netball team’s rebellion against sponsorship by Hancock Prospecting shows that big business and its servants in the media and parliament cannot put a lid on the mood by incorporating Indigenous motifs into their corporate branding.
Our responsibility, as people committed to justice for First Nations peoples, is to grow the mood for change and encourage it to help build the campaigns on the ground fighting injustice, demanding more truth-telling and ultimately, winning a treaty or treaties that enshrine land rights and self-determination.
[Sarah Hathway and Sam Wainwright are both national co-convenors of the Socialist Alliance.]