26 Jan 2023

Australia Day: Why young Aussies are shunning their national holiday

5:06 pm on 26 January 2023

By Tiffanie Turnbull for the BBC in Sydney

Protesters take part in an "Invasion Day" demonstration on Australia Day in Sydney on January 26, 2022. (Photo by Steven Saphore / AFP) (Photo by STEVEN SAPHORE/AFP via Getty Images)

Thousands take part in an "Invasion Day" demonstration on Australia Day in Sydney on 26 January, 2022. Photo: Getty Images

Only a few years ago, on Australia Day, you would have found Kaitlyn decked out in flag-adorned regalia and poolside with a beer and barbeque sausage, proudly celebrating the holiday like millions of others.

"I used to host parties… I used to be really into it," the 24-year-old told the BBC.

But Kaitlyn is now part of a growing cohort of young Australians and others who are shunning the national day.

The date - 26 January - is the anniversary of the 1788 landing of Britain's First Fleet, which began the era of colonisation.

It was also when Indigenous people began being oppressed - massacred, dispossessed of their lands and cut off from their culture.

Some argue Australia Day is an opportunity to reflect on and rejoice in what Australia has become today, despite that history. But others say it is a day of mourning, and its celebration is offensive and hurtful.

Protesters take part in an "Invasion Day" demonstration on Australia Day in Sydney on January 26, 2022. (Photo by Steven Saphore / AFP) (Photo by STEVEN SAPHORE/AFP via Getty Images)

A young woman makes her feelings clear at the Sydney protest last year. Photo: Getty Images

Kaitlyn - who asked not to give her surname - said she was never taught that perspective at school in Queensland. But as the debate gained prominence in recent years, she began seeking out more information.

And as she learned, she became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of honouring the day.

Kaitlyn has not celebrated Australia Day for years - and today, she will not observe it at all. The IT worker has asked her manager if she can work and take another day off instead.

"I love day-drinking as much as the next guy. And I'm proud to be Aussie and I love this country - I can see why people want to celebrate Australia and get the tacky tattoos out. It's just that that specific date for a lot of people means hurt and pain."

A campaign to "change the date" has been growing momentum in Australia. Many public figures - from Tasmanian Premier Jeremy Rockliff to actor Chris Hemsworth and pioneering Indigenous cricketer Jason Gillespie - have advocated for a different date.

Several councils have moved their citizenship ceremonies, traditionally held on 26 January, to other days. The Victorian state government this year cancelled its annual Australia Day parade. More employers - like supermarket giant Woolworths and telecoms company Telstra - are giving staff the option to work and take another day off instead. Retailer Kmart has stopped selling Australia Day merchandise.

And annual "Invasion Day" or "Survival Day" protests are growing.

Recent polls indicated about a third of Australians supported changing the date, and fewer people were holding celebrations on 26 January each year. For under-35s, support for moving Australia Day was even stronger - about 50 percent.

Successive governments not keen

Australia's previous conservative government - in power from 2013 until last year - consistently rejected calls to change the date.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his Labor government has no plans to move it either, although he has relaxed rules which forced councils and public service staff to mark the day.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks with media after Parliamentary church service in Canberra on July 26, 2022.

Anthony Albanese's government has made it easier for some people to work on Australia Day. Photo: AFP

The response from Australian politicians has frustrated 24-year-old Jarrah Brailey. And so a few years ago, the small business founder decided to simply change the date herself.

Her team works on 26 January, in solidarity with Aboriginal people like her two half-brothers, who feel excluded from a day that is supposed to unite Australia.

"It cost absolutely zero dollars and it was as easy as sending out a message to my team letting them know," she said.

Not only were her 10 staff supportive of the decision, they were proud of it, she said.

Actually changing the date on a national level could be easy too, she believed, because people were not particularly attached to the historical meaning of the day.

"We think we're celebrating our country… and that could be done on any day of the year," she said. "Why does it have to be on that day?"

But other young Australians like Dimitry Chugg-Palmer love Australia Day.

"I think there's many things that we can celebrate including the fact that we have a free country, we have lots of wealth and prosperity, we're incredibly welcoming, we're incredibly diverse," the 27-year-old said.

"That doesn't mean denying our past… it's an opportunity to reflect and acknowledge that we've come a long way, but we've also got still got a long way to go."

Chugg-Palmer - who is president of the youth arm of Australia's major conservative party, the Liberals - acknowledged the day does carry hurt for a lot of Indigenous Australians, but said he was yet to hear a convincing argument for changing it.

"January 26th is a natural starting point for modern Australia… I haven't seen a date put forward that is more logical date for Australia Day."

He said many young Australians agreed with him but felt "apprehensive" about celebrating because of the "noise" surrounding the occasion.

Indigenous people divided also

Support for changing the date was not universal among Indigenous people either. Some argue there are more meaningful things non-Indigenous Australians can do for First Nations people. Others say changing the date hides the wrongs of the past.

Aboriginal performer and activist Isaiah Firebrace won't be celebrating Australia Day, but he won't be boycotting it either.

The 23-year-old wanted the date changed - he said it was akin to having a national holiday to mark the beginning of a genocide.

Isaiah Firebrace of Australia performs with the song “Don't Come Easy”during the Grand Final rehearsal of Eurovision Song Contest 2017 at the International Exhibition Centre in Kiev on May 12, 2017. (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY / AFP)

Aboriginal performer and activist Isaiah Firebrace. Photo: AFP

But he will perform in the Australia Day concert in Sydney, as he has done for several years.

"I'm black and proud and… on this day [which symbolises] basically getting rid of First Nations people, I want to show that we're still here, and still strong," said Firebrace, who represented Australia at Eurovision in 2017.

But getting up on stage was a tough decision - and one he knew caused a backlash.

"People are probably going to say, 'why is he doing that?' or 'he's being ignorant about it'. But I know what I'm personally there to do… you can't really make everybody happy."

Firebrace was heartened by a growing momentum for change and believed it would happen - but he suspected it would take a generation.

So many Australians still did not understand the issue, he said. "A lot of Australians get very offended… I guess they feel like it's something that's being taken away from them.

"And a lot of people say: 'We didn't do that to you guys. And it happened so long ago. Why should we have to change… because of something that we weren't a part of.'"

Asked how he would boil it down for them, Firebrace said: "It comes down to what Australia is known for and that's mateship… [and] looking out for each other.

"It's kind of ironic that Australia stands by those values, but can't do it for its own black people."


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs