Why I won’t be partying on 26 January

In 1979, my year four class went on a school excursion. We were bussed to Perth Esplanade, where we dutifully lined up in rows to witness men dressed in red and white soldier uniforms disembark from landing craft onto the Swan River shore with rifles slung across their backs. A Noongar dance group performed a welcome corroboree. Prince Charles, the governor and other dignitaries looked on demurely from a red velvet stage.

The state of Western Australia was celebrating its sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary. We kids had a fun time. We were rewarded for our attendance with a souvenir coin, though an afternoon free of classes was reward enough.

It was some years later before I realised the significance of this farce we had all played our part in. I was unaware at the time that Aboriginal activist Ken Culbong had issued the governor, Wallace Kyle, with an eviction notice on a State Housing Commission letterhead. Premier Charlie Court was incensed.

As I finished high school, the bicentennial approached. Prime minister Bob Hawke encouraged us all to “Celebrate a Nation”. The ships that sailed into Sydney Harbour were bigger and grander than the boats beached on a muddy Swan River shore nine years earlier.

But not everyone was partying.

On 26 January 1988, 40,000 protesters converged at La Perouse for Sydney’s biggest demonstration since the Vietnam moratorium marches. Their numbers swelled as they marched through Sydney’s streets with banners and placards held aloft demanding “Land Rights Now!” and “Boycott ’88!”

For me, songwriter Paul Kelly captured the mood with his protest song “Bicentennial”. Kelly’s song described the death in custody of an Aboriginal man, his body swinging from a “prison issue blanket”. Kelly explained that he wanted no part in the celebration: “Take me away from your dance floor; leave me out of your parade. I have not the heart for dancing, for dancing on his grave”.

Nearly three decades later, 26 January continues to stir controversy.

Last year, the city of Fremantle voted to axe its annual Australia Day fireworks in favour of a more “culturally appropriate” event. In a statement issued on 25 November, the council announced that it would instead host a concert on 28 January that would provide “an opportunity for all Australians to come together and celebrate the multicultural diversity of our country”.

State premier Colin Barnett was not amused. “It’s disloyal to our country, it’s disloyal to our state, and I think it’s disloyal to the community of Fremantle”, Barnett told ABC News. “Australia Day is our national day”, a day when “history is put to one side”, he insisted.

WA Labor’s Aboriginal affairs spokesperson Ben Wyatt also turned on the council, telling the Australian, “cancelling fireworks is a facile response and likely to cause more division”.

Then the federal government stepped in. Assistant minister for immigration and border protection Alex Hawke wrote to the city of Fremantle declaring, “If the council are unable to reconcile their political views with their civic duty”, their right to host citizenship ceremonies would be revoked. In other words: hold your citizenship ceremony on 26 January in patriotic fashion or not at all.

While the media, establishment politicians and local businesspeople lined up to slam the council’s decision, Aboriginal elder and activist Robert Eggington explained that it was the first time a government body had actually listened to Aboriginal voices. Insisting that the council’s decision enjoyed popular support among Aboriginal people, Eggington told WA Today: “It’s a clarification of history, because celebrating the day the first gunshots ploughed our blood into the earth is horrific for Aboriginal people”.

Just as debate on Fremantle’s decision appeared to subside, the annual Australia Day lamb ad appeared. It depicted Indigenous Australians hosting a barbecue on what appears to be an isolated beach. Then the “guests” began to arrive: first British colonisers, then the French and then immigrant “boat people” from around the world. While Pauline Hanson criticised the ad for being “too politically correct”, Indigenous journalist Amy McQuire asserted the ad was highly insensitive to Aboriginal people.

“There are Aboriginal people dying in custody, having their children taken away, committing suicide … and that oppression stems from that original invasion”, McQuire told ABC News. “So to use that as a marketing ploy to sell lamb … is even more disgusting.”

Meat and Livestock Australia’s marketing manager Andrew Howie hit back, insisting the ad respected “cultural sensitivities”. The irony of an association representing an industry responsible for a century of slave-like exploitation of Aboriginal labour telling us how we should mark the date was evidently lost on Howie.

26 January was not declared “Australia Day” until 1935, and it became a public holiday only in 1994. But for as long as it has existed, it has also been a day of protest. In 1938, the Aborigines Progressive Association led an Indigenous crowd on a silent protest march through Sydney’s streets to mark the “Day of Mourning”.

“We, as Aborigines, have no reason to rejoice on Australia’s 150th birthday”, said Jack Patten, at a meeting following the march. “Our purpose in meeting today is to bring home to the white people of Australia the frightful conditions in which the native Aborigines of this continent live.”

Today not much has changed. Aboriginal Australians have formal equality before the law, but are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians. Poverty and poor health remain endemic in Aboriginal communities around the country.

Attempts to repackage Australia Day as a multicultural day are not new. Back in 1988, the official slogan “Living Together” was criticised by conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey for allegedly attempting to write the British out of Australian history.

But however Australia Day celebrations are packaged, or even if the date is moved, an ugly truth prevails. This nation’s history is one of genocide, and the injustice meted out to Australia’s First Nations continues.

On 26 January, I won’t be partying or going to a barbecue. I will be going to an Invasion Day protest. You should too.