Reflections on Australia Day

25 January 2012

This Australia Day members of the University of Sydney's Department of History reflect on both the origins and current meaning of the day.


Emeritus Professor Richard Waterhouse

It became commonplace in early NSW for the first generation of native born European Australians to celebrate the European occupation of Sydney in 1788 by holding a dinner on January 26 every year.

In 1825 the toast on Anniversary Day, as it was then called, was 'The land boys, we live in.'

After Federation in 1901 Australia Day was celebrated to remind us that we were a Dominion within a powerful Empire and not independent.

But on Australia Day 1942 the Melbourne Argus newspaper carried an editorial with a shift in perception.

It said that the Australian Imperial Force achievements at Gallipoli and on the Western Front in World War I were within the context of Empire, but now, standing independent of British support, Australia's achievements in the Pacific War marked the moment in which 'the Australian nation is born'.

Zoe Pollock, a PhD student researching the history of Australia Day

An Anniversary Day dinner is first mentioned in the Sydney Gazette in 1820, where it is reported that 60 to 70 people dined in George Street, 'with a degree of mirth and hilarity well suited to the occasion'.

The dinners were not just about having a good time, they were also used to highlight the organisers political campaigns, including the right for a trial by jury and the introduction of a House of Assembly into the colony.

These people wanted the right to govern themselves and they used the dinners as way of demonstrating status by imitating the pomp and tradition of high society dinners in Britain.

By 1838 the anniversary was being more widely celebrated thanks to the introduction of a regatta organised by locals - the majority of whom were involved professionally with the harbour as merchants, ship captains and ship owners.

It was not political but a celebration of the progress and prosperity that the new colony offered to some and a genuine response to the beauty of the landscape and the good January weather. From 1838 onwards crowds of working-class people started taking advantage of what is probably Australia's first public holiday, to view the regatta, host picnics, play games of cricket or attend the horse races.

Reflecting on today's celebrations:

Richard White, author of On Holidays: A History of Getting Away in Australia (2005)

Once Australia Day meant a long weekend. They were the days of 'the land of the long weekend' when Australians valued their leisure and a long weekend seemed an appropriate way to celebrate a national day.

Then we were told the national day is too important to be marked simply by a day off. In 1994 officiously patriotic busybodies decided Australia Day needed to be filled with meaning and celebrated on the day itself, not with a long weekend.

But how successful have they been? We have seen the hoisting of more flags, the rise of aggressive nationalism, a greater use of the term 'un-Australian' to describe whatever we don't happen to like. But with Australia Day falling on a Thursday this year, how many Australians will be back at work on Friday 27 January full of national pride? And how many will instead celebrate the national day with an even longer weekend than they had in its glory days?

Associate Professor Mark McKenna

Recently Australia Day has been less connected to the historical event that gave rise to it. The focus is now on feeling good about being Australian and the focus is often on Australian citizenship.

As an historian I would suggest we think more about the historical origins of Australia Day. In the 1980s a debate took place about whether it was invasion day or settlement day - but did not come to a conclusion.

Do the Enlightenment ideals of reason, secularism, progress and autonomy, then prevalent in British society of the late 18th century and brought to Australia with Arthur Phillip - speak to us today? What sort of society did Phillip imagine he was founding?

Another question we could consider more deeply on this day is what it means to have been founded as a penal colony. While we are no longer embarrassed about our penal origins we have still not found a way to be proud of this beginning.

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