“Australia Day is for all Australians, no matter where our personal stories began.” This sentence is found on the official Australia Day website, and many similar phrases can be easily found in other advertisements around Australia Day. But, is it really a day to celebrate? Should we perhaps call it Invasion Day?
The history of Australia Day
The national public holiday called Australia Day is celebrated each year on the 26th of January. The significance of this date is that on this day, in 1788, the first fleet of ships carrying convicts arrived in Australia to settle as a penal colony. In doing so, the life of the Indigenous people of Australia was changed forever, through a violent chain of events which has had lasting effects.
Aboriginal people had been living in Australia for an estimated 40 000 to 60 000 years. Indigenous Australians faced often fatal violence and attempts to completely remove their culture. During what is known as the Stolen Generation, children were removed from their homes and replaced in either white families or camps where they were separated from their family and culture to be forced into a way of living and faced horrific treatment. So, many aboriginal people refer to Australia Day as “Invasion day” or “Survival Day,” marking a day that refers to centuries of pain for their culture.
“We call it Survival Day. Whitefellas pretty much celebrating invasion and killing our mob off – that’s what it feels like for us.” – Warrick Wright from the Aboriginal band Local Knowledge
The effects of the past are still felt today. Life expectancy is 10.6 years lower for Indigenous men and 9.4 years lower for Indigenous women (Marmot 2017). The suicide rates of Aboriginal people are also alarmingly high. According to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project Report (2016), Indigenous teenagers between the age of 15-24 are 5 times more likely to commit suicide, and have higher drug and alcohol abuse levels. These are only some of the impacts that the past treatment of Indigenous Australians is having today.
Australia Day has not always been celebrated on 26 January, nor did it have this official name. It wasn’t until 1994 that the day became an official public holiday in all states and territories in Australia.
In recent years, particularly in the age of social media, there has been more conversation around this debate, both among citizens and politicians. Many protests have been organised, creating a discursive battle for meaning. While the offical date of Australia Day only goes back to 1994, there are actors in the battle which argue that the ideals around the day are 'Australian' and always have been.
Other actors in the battle are working hard, particularly through the use of social media and offline protests, to try and change the previous 'normality' of celebrating January 26. These voices are educating Australians on why the date does not seem appropriate for celebrations, considering its dark history and the ongoing effects that colonisation has had on Indigenous Australians.
Ongoing unawareness and racism around Australia Day
There are many examples of racism that can be found in Australia. One example can be found when analysing a YouTube video which was created, in with Indigenous people attempt to tear down stereotypes. The video, "I'm Aboriginal, but I'm not..." follows a structure of everyone saying: “I'm Aboriginal”, followed by a statement which aims to be a contradiction against common racial stereotypes, particularly around drug and alcohol abuse and education. For example: “I am Aborigianl, but I'm not an alcoholic.”
The video has 674 330 views, 17K likes and 1.2 dislikes. There are 3,884 comments, many of which have a similar theme. Many of the comments ignorantly state that these people are not ‘real Aboriginals’ because the majority of the people in the video don’t have particularly dark skin. Many then draw the conclusion that because of this they cannot be called Aboriginal. They fail to think of or choose to ignore the past that this community has faced and the importance of this culture to the community after it was discarted or used as a source of oppression.
The irony of these statement is that many Indigenous people are mixed race because they were taken from their families and raped or forced into white families as part of the ‘White Australia Policy'. No matter how dark their skin is, they are all Indigenous people and they connect with their culture, as some commenters indicate.
Notice that the use of the word “Abo” is derogatory, and it is still used to refer to an Aboriginal person after one man in the video actually says, “I am not Abo, but I am Aboriginal. ”
The video is just one example of the efforts of Indigenous Australians to change the racist stereotypes that are still prevalent. The comments on the video show exactly what some of these stereotypes are and how prevalently they are still used when the comments are analysed. It also shows the unawareness and lack of understanding of the history of Australia, which of course has both implications in general, and in terms of white Australians really understanding why it is that the date is insensitive and hurtful to many Indigenous Australians.
Triple J, ceremonies, and Google
There are numerous changes occuring in Australia which reflects the ongoing discursive battle around 'Australia day'. This battle has at least established a loss of normality in celebrating Australia Day and has made it into a hot topic. While many Australians still celebrate the day, there is a huge amount of discussion, making it much more controversial to celebrate.
For example, in 2017, several councils made the move to cancel Australia Day celebrations and tried to cancel the citizenship ceremonies that had previously been held on this day. Fremantle’s council cancelled the firework celebration, but local businesses were angered and funded a alternative private firework event (Turner 2017).
On top of this, the Federal Government ensured the council still had its citizenship ceremony on the 26th. Despite the continuity of these events, Mayor Brad Pettitt said that “the biggest success to come out of the controversy was a change in attitudes.” The Yarra council in Victoria voted to cancel their celebrations and citizenship ceremonies (Clure 2017) and The Darebin Council voted to move their citizenship ceremony to the 25th of January instead. Local Greens councillor Trent McCarthy said “We are at risk of losing our citizenship ceremonies but we need to make this change to respect our Indigenous people.” Moreland city council also voted to remove Australia Day celebrations. These councils have had their ability to conduct citizenship ceremonies removed (The Guardian 2017). There are a few more councils beginning to vote on the issue.
Another large reflection of this loss of normalty in celebrating the date is the move of the anual Triple J 'Hottest 100' music countdown from Australia Day to the fourth Saturday of January in 2018. Triple J is a radio station run by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), which is targeted at “young Australians”. It didn’t start matching up with Australia Day until 1998 but has become a commonly associated part of the day.
Since Triple J is actually a part of the national broadcaster, while the move has been associated by many with the debate, the statement they released said “there’s been increasing debate around January 26… as the public broadcaster representing all Australians, Triple J and ABC doesn’t take a view in the discussion.” (Triple J, 2018).
However, they do go on to explain that they want the event to be something that “everyone can enjoy together” and that “this is really important to us.” So, while the move is not directly associated with supporting moving the date, the move itself doesn't remove them from the debate. In fact it makes its listeners think more about what the date really means.
While some listeners have supported the change, others have not. Numerous tweets were made around the topc, including a tweet which said, "It's a tradition to have #hottest100 on Australia Day, stop pandering to minorities." Others supported the change, with tweets saying: "So much respect to Triple J for standing up for Indigineous Australians by changing the date of the Hottest 100 from Australia Day."
It has recently been announved that since the fourth Saturday in January falls on the 26th in 2019, it will again be celebrated on the 27th (ABC 2018). This brings the move even closer to the debate and to supporting the change, as they have once again shifted the debate, despite previously stating that it would be on the fourth Saturday of the month, to remove itself from the debate.
Another example of the shift in ideas around the day is that the Google search bar on January 26th 2016 was an image by non-Indigenous 16 year old artist Ineka Voigt, which depicts an Indigineous woman mourning her children beig taken from her. Considering the sheer size of Google as a company and that this is where a lot of people search for informaton on a daily basis, this image would have gained a lot of traction.
However, this too created a debate with many different arguments. Sam Watson, an Indigineous activist told the Huffington Post "If Google genuinely wanted to offer a statement in solidarity with our people and with our situation they should have approached Aboriginal interests and traditions and (then) commissioned a work of art." Others praisesd the artwork in the discusion on Twitter.
The discursive battle around "Australia Day"
Two main actors in this discursive battle for meaning will be zoomed in on: the anti-Australia Day activists using social media to protest both online and offline, and Pauline Hanson, an Australian politician. Their messages, and the way in which they convey these will be analysed in terms of how they contribute to this battle for hegemony, particularly in an age of digital media.
In his book Tweet and the Streets (2012) Paolo Gerbaudo discusses the role that social media takes in protests and revolutions. He argues that while social media is not only a means for sharing opinions and citizen journalism, but also as a way of getting people to a physical place, referred to as 'choreography of assembly'. In the book, he refers to a citation of an Egyptian activist made by Jared Cohen: “Facebook to set the date, Twitter to share logistics, YouTube to show the world, all to connect people.” This model can be observed to a large extent in the Invasion Day protests.
There were many Facebook events set up to organise the protests. The largest protest that occurred, in Melbourne, was estimated to have somewhere between 40 000 and 60 000 protestors (Calla Wahlquist, The Guardian 2018). The main Facebook event responsible for the organisation of the Melbourne Protest was hosted by WAR – Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and was called “Invasion Day 2018 #AbolishAustraliaDay." The event had 7036 people click ‘going’ and 9369 ‘interested’. There were an additional 8897 invited to the event. However, in many discussion posts on the event, people wrote who they were additionally bringing, for example their children, who would not have been on the event page.
Gerbaudo explains social media as a vehicle for informing people about protests, but also for suggesting “instructions about how to act” and creating “an emotional narration to sustain their coming together in a public space”. All of these means are clearly evident in the events made for protests. The event run by WAR is a good example of this. For example, discussions about what to wear, and where to meet are posted. As well as this, the emotive narration that Gerbaudo talks about is evident. In the lead up, many posts are made to inspire and unite the group.
Twitter can be seen as a platform that recapped the events that unfolded on the day and as way of responding to the protests. For example, there are tweets with short videos or images and a small description of the event, reminding people of the impact. ABC Indigenous tweeted an article “People stand in Solidarity with Aboriginal activist after Australia Day comments”, defending the rally day organiser and for saying “F--- Australia, hope it burns to the ground”, many using the hashtag #IstandwithTarleen. Tarleen responded to the criticism, saying that it shouldn’t be taken literally, and that in Aboriginal culture, fire is a symbol of new starts, saying “I just want everything, all the governments to fall apart, because our people are dying, and nobody cares and the whole system needs to change… Since colonisation nothing has worked for blackfellas on this land.” (Cunningham & Caret 2018).
YouTube has been used as a way to show people what happened. Another example of choreography of assembly is Aretha Brown, an Indigenous high school student who simply posted a message about the protest event page on Facebook, asking if she could deliver a speech on the day (Piotrowski 2017). While the speech is not recorded, there are many videos on YouTube that have been created to share her speech, with pictures of Aretha and some words from her speech. This is a prime example of how these events are documented and shared to reach more people than were physically present.
Pauline Hanson and Politics in the Pub
Pauline Hanson is a senator and a populist leader of the One Nation Party (Werner-Müller 2016). In general, and in her Australia day live broadcast, the party criticises the other parties, while suggesting that One Nation is the only party which can serve the people: “the two major parties have failed, we are here to listen to people”. Pauline Hanson is a nationalist and she uses the "strong Australian identity" in her politics. It is the basis of her policies. She is framed as a “true patriot” by her QLD state leader Steve Dickson and this national identity is constantly referred to.
“Politics in the Pub”, is a series of YouTube videos that Pauline Hanson uses to discus policies in a pub with Australian people. Her live stream of the Australia Day edition is used to convey her stance on Australia Day and Australian nationalist policies in a broader sense. In line with a populist communicative frame, she attempts to show that she represents the majority.
A good example of how that frame is mobilized is shown when she discusses whether the date for Australia day should be changed and asks for a raise of hands. All but two people in the room think it should stay the same, to which she replies “I’m voting to leave it as it is. This is what Australia is all about.” This helps her to give the perception that almost all Australians agree with her, even though she is in a pub with a reasonably small amount of people who support her. She then even argues that Indigenous people are on her side too, saying: “I don’t believe that the true Aboriginal gives a damn about it... A lot of them have actually come on board and are proud to be Australians…the Aboriginals are the first peoples of this land, but we must also be acknowledged.”
As many populists do in this age, Pauline Hanson also makes her case on additional social media, including Facebook and Twitter, participating in Algorithmic Populism. Her strong anti-change posts on both Facebook and Twitter continued to bring debate on the social media platforms.
Algorithmic Populism focuses on two main areas: creating the perception that their view is that of the majority and reaching more people so that the post become “more relevant” and hence reaches even more people (Maly 2018). On January 15th, 2018, she posted her stance on Facebook, finishing with the sentence: “let’s not bend to the vocal minorities”. Once again trying to show that she is the voice of the only people who matter. The post received 9.1K reactions, 1.3K comments and 1,372 shares. To extend her reach even further, Pauline shared the post through her “Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party”, from her “Pauline Hanson’s Please Explain”, to gain an extra 516 reactions, 167 comments, and 26 shares.
On twitter, Hanson has 44.6K followers, while following only 270 people herself. This ratio is important in establishing the perception that what she writes about is important and has credibility, as this is a high follower to following ration (Maly 2018). Her Australia Day post had 275 comments, 268 retweets, and 1.1K hearts.
The top comment is from @colleenmenzies, who describes herself as “Truth Seeker & Justice for All”. Her cover photo is an Indigenous art work. She is very active, with a total of 136K tweets. She replies with a photo of past Australia Day badges which display different days and writes “OH really Pauline Hanson. Well take a look of days from the past that were Australia Day.” Overall, it seems that when comparing these two posts, the Facebook posts top comments are much more in support of her message than on her Twitter post, but despite this fact, she has still managed to reach and receive likes from many people on the post. In general, the top comments on her tweets are form other members of her party or political supporters who reiterate what she says.
The future of January 26th
It’s hard to know what the future of January 26th will be, but there is no doubt that the debate will continue. As more councils cancel official celebrations, and both online and offline protests continue to occur, the debate will go on. There are some people who have suggested a substantial list of new dates, some comical, some serious that could replace the current date.
Maly, I. (2018) What is populism? A discursive take on the phenomenon
Maly, I (2018) Algorithmic populism and algorithmic activism. Diggit Magazine.
Gerbaudo, P. (2014). Tweets and the Streets. Social media and contemporary activism.
Clure, E. (2017). City of Yarra council’s ‘attack on Australia Day’ angers Malcom Turnbull. ABC News.
Cunningham, M & Carey, A. (2018). ‘Invasion day’ rally organiser says her comments Australia should ‘burn to the ground’ should not be taken literally. The Age.
Dudgeon, P 2016, ‘Solutions that work: What the evidence and our people tell us’, The University of Western Australia, Viewed 4 December 2018.
Marmot, M 2017, ‘Dignity, social investment and Indigenous health gap’, The Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 207, no. 1, pp. 20-21, viewed 6 December 2018.
McKeith, S. (2016). Indigenous Google Doodle Goes Live, Divides Australia Day Opinion. Huffington Post.
Piotrowski, D. (2017). From Coles worker and high school student to the face of the uprising against Australia Day: Meet the Aboriginal aspiring model, 16, brave enough to speak before 50 000 people. Daily Mail U
Sutherland, A. (2018). Impartiality, the ABC and Australia Day. ABC.
As/Is 2015, I’m Aboriginal but I’m not…, online video, viewed November 23 2018,
Hanson, P 2017, Facebook update, 28 July, viewed 1 December 2018.
Hanson, P 2018, Twitter update, September 24, viewed 1 December 2018.
Mashable 2016, Twitter update, January 26, viewed 22 November 2018.
Pauline Hanson’s Please Explain 2017, WATCH: Pauline Hanson’s Australia Day Livestream Celebration, online video, viewed 22 November 2018
WE NEWS 2018, Activist Aretha Brown’s powerful Australia Day speech, online video viewed December 2 2018.