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The history of Australia Day

It could be surprising to learn that Australia Day has only been officially celebrated on January 26 for just over three decades, even though it has been 252 years since Captain James Cook first raised the Union Jack to signal the beginning of the Australian colony in August 1770. 

In that context, the 34 years since January 26 was named the official date of Australia Day celebrations in 1988 represents a very short period of time. 

The first Australia Day celebration was held on July 30 in 1915 to raise money for the war effort. In 1916, it was changed to July 28. 

What is Australia Day all about?

Australia Day should be a day where all Australians – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or non-Aboriginal people – unite in celebration about what it is to be Australian and to acknowledge our shared history. 

Instead, the day has become one of contention and division, and can incite anger on both sides of the debate. There were many reports last year of well-meaning people being shamed on social media for celebrating Australia Day. 

The 26th of January is a day of mourning for First Nations people. That date marks the day that Captain Arthur Phillip – commander of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain, and the first Governor of New South Wales – arrived at Sydney Cove and claimed the eastern states as a British colony, officially declaring the country had been uninhabited. 

The ultimate goal

Reconciliation is about building stronger relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia.  

The ultimate goal is to live in an Australian society that respects and recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage as a proud part of a shared national identity, and to live together in harmony. 

If you haven’t already, the Uluru Statement From the Heart is a good document to read to understand what Aboriginal Australians are asking of their fellow Australians. 

While it may feel difficult to influence the debate around whether the date of our national celebration should be changed, or stay the same, there are ways to make a difference. It could be as simple as a genuine conversation with family, friends or colleagues, or sending an email to your elected member of Parliament.  

Our work

Cannings Purple works closely with a number of Aboriginal businesses and organisations, including the Noongar Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Reconciliation WA, and provides support to a range of clients in developing Reconciliation Action Plans and Aboriginal Engagement strategies. 

In recognition that January 26 is not a day that everyone wants to celebrate, Cannings Purple has given its staff the option of taking that leave day on a different date. 

Reconciliation is a conversation that matters, and it’s one we should all be part of. Finding common ground on how and when to make space for that conversation would be a very good start. 

About the Author

Wendy Pryer is a communications specialist with more than 25 years’ experience in media, corporate communications and stakeholder management. 

She has an intimate understanding of Aboriginal affairs, including reconciliation, and has successfully developed and managed reconciliation action plan projects in close collaboration with Aboriginal employees, customers and external stakeholders. Contact Wendy at wpryer@canningspurple.com.au. 

More on this:

The importance of respectful engagement 

National Reconciliation Week: More Than A Word

Close The Gap Day: Leadership and legacy through crisis

Working towards a more inclusive economy

January 26: A Conversation That Matters