Before We Defend January 26, Let's Be Honest About What Really Happened

It is unlikely that the debate over Australia Day will ever really go away.

Even if the date were changed, people would still argue over whether it should’ve been. Even if the day were abolished altogether, a Bring Back Australia Day movement would immediately begin agitating.

The chances of Australia Day ever uniting all Australians seem, at this stage, pretty slim. Which doesn’t stop people trying.

Scott Morrison, who at the time of writing is still prime minister, has weighed in, opining that Australia Day should definitely stay on January 26, but maybe we could have another day as well, a special day for Indigenous Australians, to celebrate them.

This proposal met with approval from some and scorn from others, but whether you think another national day would be a fine gesture, or would be even more divisive, Morrison’s idea still doesn’t answer the central criticism of January 26 as a national day -- that it commemorates an act of invasion that should not be cause for celebration.

The PM naturally disagrees with that criticism. He tweeted, “Our modern Aus nation began on January 26, 1788. That’s the day to reflect on what we’ve accomplished, become, still to achieve.”

There is an old and quite useful saying that one is entitled to one’s own opinion, but not to one’s own facts. With that in mind, we can respect anyone’s right to believe that January 26 is the perfect day to celebrate our country, but we should also be quite clear about what happened on January 26, 1788, and what did not. Because there seems to be a fair bit of confusion around it.

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This confusion sometimes takes an obvious form, as in the case of deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie, who in September claimed that January 26 was “when Captain Cook stepped ashore”. This is apparently quite a common belief among Australians -- Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young made the same mistake earlier this year -- and it’s something of an indictment on the state of Australian history education.

Just to be clear, James Cook stepped ashore in Australia in 1770, and was nowhere near Port Jackson when the First Fleet arrived, being tucked up safely in his grave.

There are many Australians who are still surprised to learn that Captain Cook had been dead for nine years when the colony at Sydney was established, which makes one think that perhaps before we go building any more monuments to the guy, we should make an effort to find out who he was.

But the confusion over Australia Day goes beyond simple mistaken identity: it also takes the form of more general statements like Morrison’s on when “our modern Australia began”. This view, especially popular on the PM’s side of politics, has Arthur Phillip’s landing as a glorious foundational event, something akin to America’s signing of the Declaration of Independence or France’s storming of the Bastille.

READ MORE: PM Wants New Day To Recognise Australia's Indigenous History

So let’s examine what actually happened at Port Jackson -- not Botany Bay -- on January 26, 1788. The First Fleet landed. Captain Arthur Phillip and a few of his officers went ashore, planted a British flag and “took formal possession” of the continent, which in practical terms meant point at it and crying, “Mine!”

In bald descriptive terms, that’s it.

Captain Arthur Phillip (1738 - 1814) of the Royal Navy, raises the flag to declare British possession of New South Wales at Sydney Cove, Australia, 26th January 1788. (Photo: Getty)

Phillip was establishing a new outpost of the British Empire and a penal colony to house the hundreds of convicts who, at the time of the flag-planting, were still huddled on board ship, cursing their luck at having been consigned to this alien hellhole. The idea of this being the founding of a new nation would not have occurred to a single person there. The word “Australia” itself had not yet been used to refer to the landmass, let alone as the name of a country.

So that was January 26, 1788: the day when a group of sweltering Englishmen staggered ashore after an awful eight-month sea voyage, and declared their new island gaol open for business.

The day a group of people, most of whom desperately didn’t want to be there, arrived in a land where the people who were already there desperately wanted them to leave.

If one insists that this is the ideal date on which to celebrate all that we love about Australia, one should at least be clear that this is what it’s the anniversary of -- this is what is so incredibly important that we can’t countenance having it on a different day. This prison ribbon-cutting is the event which no other milestone in Australian history can surpass as worthy for our national party.

READ MORE: Nationals MP Gets Australia Day History Wrong

When we think about “our modern Australian nation”, the one Scott Morrison believed began at the moment Arthur Phillip dug his sweaty boot into Sydney Cove, we think about all the things that combine to make up the country we live in now.

Of all those things, very few of them kicked off on January 26, 1788. Independence didn’t arrive then. Democracy didn’t arrive then. The basic existence of Australia itself didn’t arrive then. The only aspect of modern Australia that arrived then was… white people.

So stick up for whatever date you must. Just be honest about what you’re sticking up for.

This post was first published October 1, 2018.