Australia commemorated its national day on Wednesday with frank discussions about the country’s past, as a younger generation forced a historical reckoning by refusing to celebrate the arrival of British settlers.
Australia Day marks the landing of the first boat of Britons on January 26 1788 and is a moment of national pride for many that has traditionally been marked with family gatherings and barbecues.
But some Australians, particularly indigenous groups, increasingly refer to the anniversary as Invasion Day and mark the occasion with protests against the violence perpetrated by early settlers against their ancestors.
“What took place was genocide, irreversible trauma,” said Yvonne Weldon, the first Aboriginal city councillor for Sydney’s central business district, at a morning ceremony held a few hundred metres from where the first fleet of British settlers landed.
Recent surveys have shown younger Australians increasingly agreed with this interpretation, reflecting a broader reassessment of historical legacies following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and efforts in Britain to re-examine the country’s colonial past.
A poll published by CoreData last week found a split along generational lines, with two-thirds of those aged 27 to 41 and close to 70 per cent for those under 27 saying they would not celebrate Australia Day. An even larger segment of respondents wanted to move the national day to a different date.
By contrast, among respondents aged 56 to 75, 69 per cent said they would celebrate this year, and the same proportion rejected changing the date.
The growing opposition has prompted a number of local councils in more left-leaning parts of the country to cancel celebrations.
Cricket Australia has stopped referring to January 26 as Australia Day on match billings, drawing derision from some conservative commentators.
But there is little desire among the leading federal political parties to shift approach, with a survey conducted by Deakin University in November finding a sizeable majority wanted to preserve Australia Day on January 26.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has consistently supported keeping the date. In a speech on Tuesday, he avoided the debate entirely but made a point of paying tribute to Aboriginal history and culture.
Anthony Albanese, leader of the opposition Labor party, said he supported maintaining the date as well. “Australia Day is a good moment for us to reflect, to consider our blessings as a nation and to celebrate them,” he said.
Albanese has previously suggested holding a referendum on the issue but withdrew the proposal following a backlash that included members of his own party.
But David Lowe, chair of contemporary history at Deakin University who led the November survey, said there was “slow burn in favour of a change of the date”, after 53 per cent of under-35s respondents supported a change.
“The more exposure Australians have to indigenous history, the more likely they are to think seriously about whether the current formula is appropriate,” he said.