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Every January, a line is drawn between those who celebrate Australia Day and those who protest it, raising important questions about our national identity and history.

In 1888, when then-premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes, was asked whether a centenary celebration was being planned for Indigenous Australians alongside the settlers’ celebration he responded, “And remind them we have robbed them?”.

Sir Henry Parkes did not want to remind Aboriginals that settlers had stolen their land. NSW State Archives.

Since that time, a debate has been ongoing: should Australia Day be celebrated or scorned?

For those who celebrate the day, it’s associated with a public holiday, fireworks, barbecues, and pool parties. It’s a celebration of Australianness. Those that protest it call it Invasion Day, Survival Day, or the Day of Mourning to reflect our brutal colonial past.

The origins of Australia Day: the non-Indigenous perspective.

On 26 January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip, captain of the First Fleet of convict ships sent from Great Britain, raised the British flag in Sydney Cove to signal the creation of the colony of New South Wales.

‘The Founding of Australia’ by Algernon Talmadge (1937). State Library of NSW.

As Australia was being explored, John Batman, one of the pioneers in the founding of Victoria, settled at Port Phillip. He attempted to buy the land from the Indigenous people living there by entering a treaty with them.

Batman’s treaty was overridden by the NSW Governor, Sir Richard Bourke, who issued a Proclamation on 10 October 1835 that Australia was terra nullius – nobody’s land – even though Indigenous people had lived on the continent for at least 65,000 years.

John Batman’s treaty with local Aborigines which was later reversed by the NSW Governor. State Library Victoria.

Celebrating NSW’s founding 30 years later in 1818, the Governor gave all government employees the day off. Initially, only NSW celebrated the day of colonisation known variously as ‘First Landing Day’, ‘Anniversary Day’ or ‘Foundation Day’.

Other colonies celebrated their own beginnings in their own ways. In Tasmania – known then as Van Dieman’s Land – Regatta Day in early December acknowledged both the landing of Abel Tasman in 1642 and the state’s separation from NSW. In Western Australia, Foundation Day on June 1 celebrated the arrival of white settlers in 1829. South Australia held their Proclamation Day on December 28.

In 1838, 50 years after the First Fleet’s arrival, Foundation Day was declared Australia’s first public holiday in NSW.

Empire Day was introduced on 24 May 1905 – Queen Victoria’s birthday – to celebrate ties between Australia and England. On July 30, 1915, an Australia Day was held to help raise funds for World War I.

By 1935, January 26 was recognised as Australia Day in all states except NSW, where it was called Anniversary Day.

Agreement between Commonwealth and state governments to call 26 January ‘Australia Day’ across the country came in 1946 and, since 1994, Australia Day has been a national public holiday.

The National Australia Day Council (NADC), founded in 1979, views Australia Day as a celebration of “our nation, its achievements and most of all, its people”. It’s on Australia Day that new citizens are welcomed, and inspirational Australians honoured.

Australia Day: the Indigenous perspective.

On 26 January 1938, Australia celebrated the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet. As part of the celebrations, Indigenous peoples were forced to participate in a re-enactment of the landing.

As part of the celebrations, Indigenous peoples were forced to participate in a re-enactment of the landing.

Twenty-five Indigenous men from Menindee in western NSW were gathered up, placed onto a mission truck, and brought into Sydney. They were told that if they didn’t participate, their families would starve. To further ensure their participation, the men were locked in the Redfern Police Barracks until the re-enactment took place and, on that day, were chased by British soldiers with bayonets.

Indigenous men forced to participate in the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet, 1938. State Library of NSW.

The re-enactments were only discontinued in 1988.

In response to the sesquicentennial celebrations, a group of over 100 Indigenous people protested the violence, dispossession, and discrimination that Indigenous people had experienced since 1788. They called it the ‘Day of Mourning’ and argued for citizenship, full rights, and better access to education for Indigenous peoples.

Aboriginal Day of Mourning, 1938. National Museum of Australia.

On Australia Day 1972, four Indigenous men set up a beach umbrella opposite Parliament House, Canberra, in protest of the government’s alienation of Indigenous peoples. Thus, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established.

First day of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Canberra 1972. State Library of NSW.

In 1988 – on the two-hundredth anniversary – when the country collectively agreed to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January rather than with a long weekend, Indigenous peoples renamed the day ‘Invasion Day’.

At the same time as Sydney’s bicentenary celebrations, more than 40,000 Indigenous people and their supporters staged what was the biggest march ever seen in Sydney.

The 1988 protest focused national and international attention to Australia’s ongoing history of colonisation and aimed to educate people.

Carried out in the same spirit as the 1938 Day of Mourning protest, the 1988 protest focused national and international attention to Australia’s ongoing history of colonisation and aimed to educate people about the poor conditions of Indigenous health, education, and welfare.

The 1988 Australia Day protest was the biggest march seen in Sydney. National Film and Sound Archive.

Why is Australia Day offensive to Indigenous peoples?

Aboriginal activist and lawyer, Palawa-Pinterrairer man Michael Mansell has accused Australia of exhibiting a double standard when it comes to Australia Day. While Australian soldiers who died at Gallipoli are revered with a public holiday and the erection of monuments, there are no monuments or holidays for the Indigenous people who fell victim to white settlers.

Protest by Aboriginal rights activists, Australia Day, Melbourne 2018. Getty Images.

Mansell points out that Australia is the only country that celebrates its national day based on the arrival of Europeans.

Australia is the only country that celebrates its national day based on the arrival of Europeans.

Australia did not become a nation until 1901 when the six, then-separate British colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Prior to the implementation of Australia’s Constitution, Indigenous peoples were not counted as citizens and, therefore, denied the vote.

It is argued that an official national day is meant to celebrate the beginning of nationhood which, in Australia’s case, is 1901. Therefore, for Indigenous peoples, the only significance of 26 January 1788 is that it was when the British set foot on, and took over, Indigenous land.

Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman, playwright/actor Nakkiah Lui, views Australia Day as a day of mourning for Indigenous peoples: mourning for the declaration of Australia as terra nullius; for those who were massacred; for those who were removed from their lands and oppressed; for those whose children were stolen. Lui also mourns the effects of genocide and colonisation that persist today.

Nun leading children of the stolen generation to march at the New Norcia Mission, Western Australia. Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation.

In 2019, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data showed 46% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had at least one chronic condition that posed a significant health problem. The ABS also reports that the life expectancy for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander males is more than eight years less than non-Indigenous males. For Indigenous females it is around eight years less.

Indigenous peoples are more likely to suffer chronic health conditions compared with non-Indigenous peoples. Australian National Audit Office.

For these reasons, many Indigenous peoples view Australia Day as painful, marking the beginning of colonisation. They have been protesting 26 January for a long time but, in recent years, more people – including local governments and community organisations – have joined the #changethedate movement.

Changing the date: will it change anything?

Calls to change the date of Australia Day have grown over the last five years. Much of the debate is drawn along generational lines.

In 2019, Australian National University’s Social Research Centre (SRC) found that 58% of Millennials and 47% of Gen Z were far less supportive of celebrating January 26 compared with 73% of Gen X and 80% of Baby Boomers who wanted to keep the date. The Silent Generation – those born before Baby Boomers – were almost unanimous in their support of retaining the date of January 26 (90%).

These figures demonstrate movement toward changing the date. Importantly, younger generations are more likely to be aware of Indigenous issues as there is more inclusive history taught in schools.

Woman at  Invasion Day march, Melbourne 2019. Chris Hopkins.

ABC’s Australia Talks National Survey 2021 found that a majority – 55% – of Australians are for changing the date “given the historical significance of that date for Indigenous people”. This was an increase of 12 percent since the last survey in 2019.

However, these results do not accord with a national poll conducted by Ipsos in January 2021 which found that half of Australians (48%) did not want the date changed.

Gamillaroi man Luke Pearson warns supporters of #changethedate not to forget that it is not just the date on which Australia Day is celebrated that is the problem; it is what is being celebrated on that date.

For Pearson, more needs to change before the date is changed. He considers changing the date to be the final item on a list that includes addressing higher incarceration rates for Indigenous peoples, health and education issues, housing, and unemployment. These things need to be dealt with first.

Changing the date does not change what happened on it.

The negative feelings Indigenous people have towards the date are not going to go away simply because Australia Day is moved.

Some, including some Indigenous people, suggest that the date should be retained, used as a time to reflect on our past and its injustices. That the day does not have to be either Australia Day or Invasion Day, it can be both: a recognition of the damage done by colonisation and a celebration of what a great country Australia is.

Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation says Australia Day celebrations still cause trauma. Darren Howe.

What should the new date be?

There are a number of dates suggested that still celebrate Australia and Australianness, just not on a day that is painful for many Indigenous people. Here are some possibilities:

  • 1 January: the day Australia came into being on the Federation of Australia, 1 January 1901.
  • 18 January: the day the Supply, one of the first three First Fleet ships to reach Botany Bay, arrived.
  • 13 February: the date, in 2018, the government apologised to the Stolen Generations.
  • 2 March: when in 1986 Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Queen Elizabeth signed the Australia Act 1986, making Australia a fully independent, sovereign nation (it came into effect the following day).
  • 19 April: the date in 1984 when ‘Advance Australia Fair’ was proclaimed the National Anthem.
  • 9 May: the date in 1901 when the first meeting of the Commonwealth parliament took place and the day on which Australia became a self-governing, independent commonwealth.
  • 27 May: the date of the 1967 referendum that removed constitutional clauses that discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (‘Reconciliation Day’).
  • 3 June: the day the High Court overturned the doctrine of terra nullius and acknowledged native land rights (‘Mabo Day’).
  • 9 July: the date Queen Victoria gave her acceptance to the Constitution of Australia in 1900.
  • 30 July: the date of the first Australia Day in 1915.

Do we celebrate the old or the new? Or both?

Ultimately, it comes down what is more important: the 65,000-plus years of Indigenous occupation before 1788, or the 230-odd years since. Do we celebrate the old or the new? Or both?

The question ‘Do we change the date of Australia Day?’ involves the weighing up of complex social issues. It a question that, unfortunately, is not easily answered.

 Shedding a light on hearing impairment within Indigenous communities.

Aboriginal people are 10 times more likely to suffer from ear diseases than non-indigenous people, and only seven per cent of Aboriginal children in remote communities have healthy ears.

Australian Ear Nose and Throat Specialist, Dr Kelvin Kong recalls a remarkable encounter; “In a community in central Australia I visited, the health worker was baffled by a patient, a little girl. She called me over to have a look and it was a normal healthy eardrum. She’d never seen one before.”

What is otitis media?

The Department of Health defines otitis media, as the term used to describe all forms of inflammation and infection of the middle ear. Infections can present with middle ear fluid or persistent discharge, and can be chronic or acute. Unless corrected by surgery, chronic infections can lead to long term, and in some cases, permanent hearing loss.

The report published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, highlights otitis media as the key condition contributing to hearing loss among Indigenous children. A condition that is treatable and preventable.

How is otitis media treated?

There are generally two ways to treat otitis media; one is through an operation called Myringotomy, whereby surgeons make an incision in the eardrum to relieve pressure caused by excessive build-up. Alternatively, surgeons perform a Tympanoplasty, which is reconstructive surgery used to treat a perforated eardrum.

What causes otitis media?

Data from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey of 2014-15, highlights how poor socio-economic factors may contribute to an increase in ear infections. Over nine per cent of Indigenous children living in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged households had hearing problems, compared with just over six per cent of Indigenous children living in the least disadvantaged homes. Poor hygiene, overcrowded housing and inadequate access to clean running water and functioning sewerage, can all increase the risk of developing ear infections.

Many Indigenous families live in remote areas; this is associated with decreased access to key health services. A lack of coordinated, accessible and culturally sensitive health care services in remote areas can lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment for ear infections.

Research shows one in five indigenous children in rural and remote areas wait longer than the recommended period of three months for audiology testing.

Reduced awareness of essential health information has led to higher numbers of premature births, low breastfeeding rates and nutritional deficiencies, all of which increase the risk of otitis media in children.

Why should we be concerned?

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) explains that 0-4 years is the critical age range for laying down neural pathways relating to language and speech, it is therefore imperative children’s hearing during this period, is properly functioning.

Sadly, statistics show on average, Indigenous children having to wait until the ages of five and six, before having their first hearing aid fitted.

Hearing problems at such a young age can lead to poorer outcomes in areas of expressive language; vocabulary; language memory and speech intelligibility. Poor development in these key areas can increase the risk of behavioural problems such as irritability, disobedience and poor school attendance.

Beyond the education system, these problems are closely associated with higher rates of social isolation, limited employment options, low income and increased contact with the criminal justice system.

The final report from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991) was the first to comment on the relationship between childhood ear disease, poor school performance and their connection to involvement in the criminal justice system. An alarming 90% of Aboriginal prisoners at Darwin Correctional Centre showed signs of hearing loss, while this figure increased to 95% in Alice Springs.

On a spiritual level, the art of story telling within Indigenous families forms a crucial part of their cultural identity. If children are unable to hear stories of their family history, they will not be able to share these with future family members, causing far-reaching inter-generational difficulties. A crisis of personal identity is strongly correlated with reduced self-esteem and an exacerbation of mental health problems.

How can improvements be made?

The key is prevention and early intervention. NACCHO suggests increased awareness of the importance of basic hygiene skills such as washing hands and faces can help reduce the risk of ear infections, along with timely immunisations and healthy food choices.

The Department of Health put forward recommendations to improve the training of health care practitioners to ensure Indigenous children who attend primary health care are appropriately screened or treated for otitis media and hearing loss.

Greater coordination of research and collaborative health and housing initiatives, developed with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies is recommended to address the barriers and exclusion many Indigenous families encounter.

The Department of Health are also calling for education strategies to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Such an initiative has been trialled in remote parts of Western Australia, whereby teachers are using microphones and speakers in classrooms to create a more inclusive learning environment. The teachers have reported increased attentiveness, reduced frustration and report that students appear much happier and confident in themselves.

What does the future look like?

Data shows that the proportion of Indigenous children with poor ear health has fallen in the last 15 years thanks to the introduction of a range of Government prevention programs such as The National Healthy Ears, Better Hearing, Better Listening program, which offers diagnosis, treatment and management of ear and hearing health for Indigenous Children and young people aged 0 to 21 years.

Outreach programs; such as the Northern Territory Remote Aboriginal Investment Hearing Health Program (NTRAI HHP) have also shown promising results. The results, following their delivery of specialist ear and hearing services to high risk Indigenous children and young people in remote parts of the Northern Territory have shown so far, of the children who moved through the NTRAI HHP, 51% had improved hearing loss and 62% had improved hearing impairment over time.

There is hope that improvements can be made, however there needs to be continued awareness, understanding and support if there is to be success in improving the health and social outcomes of Indigenous children across Australia.