Why not celebrate Australia Day? The first reason is obvious. Australia’s national holiday is scheduled to celebrate the beginning of a genocidal invasion. Between the landing of the First Fleet on 26 January 1788 and 1900, around 90 percent of the Aboriginal population was wiped out. In Queensland's Frontier Wars alone, researchers Raymond Evans and Robert Orsted-Jensen say that roughly 60,000 Aboriginal people were killed.
As the country was colonised, invaders had to fight for every inch. Examples are legion, even as the massacres were covered up and deliberately “forgotten”. The Bathurst War is just one case. From 1824, the Wiradjuri waged a guerrilla war to protect their lands. Bathurst’s governor placed the area under martial law, and Wiradjuri men and women were indiscriminately massacred. Approximately 1,000 were murdered. While the invasion continued, Aboriginal people were taken from their communities and forced into labour on cattle and sheep stations. In the late 1800s, Reverend John Gribble wrote, “I have seen numbers of natives brought in from the interior, and some of them had never before seen the face of a white man, and they were compelled to put their hand to a pen and make a cross which they never could understand, and having done this they were then slaves for life, or as long as they were good for pearl diving”.
To cover up the barbaric legacy of Australia’s founding, a national mythology was created, claiming that before invasion, this land was empty earth, a terra nullius. In this mythology, the Aboriginal people were terminally barbaric, with no ability to organise their own civilisation, and “settlers” had done the benevolent service of setting one up for them; the invasion was humane. This ideology didn’t die out in the nineteenth century. It is constantly revived by right-wing culture warriors. In the year 2000, right-wing media commentator Keith Windschuttle could write, “Ever since they were formed in 1788, the British colonies in Australia were civilised societies, governed by both morality and laws that forbade the killing of the innocent”.
New research constantly reveals more proof of the invasion’s brutality. But the basic narrative has been known, and covered up, since the crimes were committed. In 1869, a writer in the Newcastle Chronicle lamented the barbarism of what was taking place: “We have not only taken possession of the lands of the [A]boriginal tribes of this colony, and driven them from their territories, but we have also kept up unrelenting hostility towards them, as if they were not worthy f being classed with human beings, but simply regarded as inferior to some of the lower animals of Creation.”
There’s a liberal version of this national mythology, too. It acknowledges that Australia was created through barbaric violence, but asserts that this barbarism is confined to the past. The alleged moral cleansing of Australia is exemplified in Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. Rudd apologised in particular for the Stolen Generations, asserting that “this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again”. But even as he spoke these words, Rudd was presiding over the creation of a new Stolen Generation, as he continued the “intervention” into Aboriginal life in the Northern Territory. Between 2007 and 2013, the rate of child removals in the NT increased by 80 percent. In this context, the apology takes on a far more sinister quality. It was not a heartfelt attempt at reconciliation; it was the words of a snake oil merchant. Rudd sold the lie of reconciliation in an attempt to dissipate anger at what was being done to Aboriginal communities, so that he could continue their oppression.
Despite the ongoing crimes of the Australian state against Aboriginal people, every year a national holiday asks us to celebrate the start of the oppression. To get together with beers, barbecues and Australian flags to enjoy a day that marks out the beginning of a genocide; to hit the beach with your mates to party on the day which started the massacres, the poisoning of land, the stealing of children. The whole thing needs to be abolished, and anyone with a bone of righteousness in their body should refuse ever to celebrate it.
Recognising this sickness, some have popularised the call to “change the date”. But the problem with Australia Day isn’t just the date. Australia Day exists to celebrate Australian nationalism. It’s a holiday designed to bond us all to the idea that all Australians are part of a single national project: that ordinary people, you and I, have something in common with those who rule this nation.
This narrative needs to be rejected. Australia is a capitalist country, in which a small, wealthy minority dominates and controls the vast majority of us. They make a profit out of exploiting us. As part of exploiting the majority, the capitalist class and their political servants carry out many kinds of oppression. They gut welfare payments, forcing many to live in poverty. They steal wages from vulnerable workers. They whip up racism against Aboriginal people and migrants through the media conglomerates they control. They subject refugees to psychological torture by keeping them imprisoned indefinitely, and they justify it by saying these people may be a threat to our nation.
Why would we have a holiday to celebrate our supposed “common interests” with those who perpetrate these crimes? We aren’t on the same team as those who committed massacres against Aboriginal people, or the system that kills them now in the prison cells.
For nearly 20 years, Australian troops have helped to occupy Afghanistan, part of an invasion and occupation that have killed more than 100,000 civilians, according to the United Nations. As has been revealed recently in a war crimes investigation, Australian soldiers carried out what amounted to “sanctioned psychopathic behaviour”. Australian nationalism—and Australia Day—tells us that these people were “our” troops”. That they fought under “our” flag. That we are on their team.
Let’s not “perfect” Australia Day by putting it on some benign day, so we can ignore the genocidal origins and criminal conduct of the Australian state. Australian nationalism isn’t something we need to improve, it is something we need to fight.
Every time nationalism is used to justify oppression, we need to shout: “Not in our names!” We need to learn the history of resistance to barbarism in this country, celebrate it and stand on the side of those who fought back.
Those like Dooley Bin Bin, Daisy Bindi and Clancy McKenna, three of the key organisers of the Pilbara strike, when more than 800 Aboriginal people walked off stations and workplaces across Western Australia on May Day 1946—beginning the longest strike in Australia’s history. Those like Sam Watson, who fought for justice for Aboriginal people his entire life and linked it to a world of struggles against oppression, like the movement against apartheid in South Africa.
Throughout history, there have been those who have resisted Australian barbarism. Being an “Australian” doesn’t tell you what side of justice you’re on: you can be John Howard, who ordered war crimes, or Julian Assange, who is being psychologically tortured for the crime of uncovering those atrocities. This country is deeply divided: some oppress, and some resist. This year on 26 January, you should join the ranks of those who resist. Attend Invasion Day protests wherever you are. Refuse to celebrate Australia.
But don’t just leave it to 26 January. Resist every day of the year. Turn up at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Attend protests to free refugees from offshore detention and the hotels they are imprisoned in. Fight, and push others to fight alongside you. We don’t need to change the date; we need to change the world. And as radical Aboriginal activist Gary Foley told an Invasion Day rally in Melbourne: “If you want to change the world, it’s important to get together with others and be organised, because you can’t do it by yourself.”