Australia Day

26 January 2015

276 days to go

1901: Federation

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FIGURE 10: The two Australian shipping ensigns, modified and approved by the British Admiralty, were gazetted in 1903. Source: Ralph Kelly, Flags Australia

Celebrations surrounding the inauguration of the new Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January in Sydney and at the opening of its first Federal Parliament on 9 May in Melbourne overshadowed Anniversary Day in 1901. Federation had been a remarkable political achievement. Colonies had jostled to protect their interests: New South Wales rivalling Victoria; and the smaller states fearing the larger states' combined political power. Led by the ANA in Victoria and the Australasian Federation League in New South Wales, the colonies chose to be self-governing within the British Empire, not independent outside it. They were Australian, but they were also British. As Parkes had reminded colonial representatives in Melbourne in 1890, 'The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all'.18  They belonged together because they shared not only a continent but also a British background. As a small white population of almost four million in a large continent far from Britain, Australians depended on the Royal Navy.

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Figure 11:  The Australasian Federation League used this Australian flag badge to promote federation in the referendum of 1898. Source: MS 47, National Library of Australia

Schools joined in celebrating federation by raising the Union Jack, the flag of Britain and its Empire introduced into their schoolyards for the occasion, and the focus of subsequent school ceremonies. Conservative Australian and state governments in 1905 reinforced its role by instituting Empire Day, 24 May, the birthday of the late Queen Victoria, to reassure those who feared that federation would weaken the ties of subsequent generations of Australians to Britain. But the day also served to boost their campaign against an emerging Labor Party. In Sydney Irish Catholic Church leaders reacted in 1911 by re-naming Empire Day, Australia Day, since 24 May was also the feast day of Our Lady Help of Christians, Patroness of Australia. The move prompted an indignant response from militant Protestants at a time of intense sectarianism.

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FIGURE 12: A gum (eucalyptus) leaf as a memento of 30 July 1915, designated Australia Day to raise funds for Australian troops. Source: J. Paul Robinson

The national symbols, flags and coat of arms, representing the Commonwealth were strongly British. The two shipping ensigns (blue for government ships, red for merchant ships in the British imperial tradition) honoured the national flag, the Union Jack, with the Southern Cross in the fly and the Commonwealth Star beneath the Jack representing the states and territories (figure 10). The Australasian Federation League had thought that the flag of their campaign during the 1890s, the old New South Wales Ensign which had drawn such cheering in the Sydney Regatta in 1838, would become the flag of the Commonwealth (figure 11). But it did not fit the pattern required by the British Admiralty. The first Commonwealth coat of arms in 1908 also used the Commonwealth Star (as a crest) but the dominant feature was the red St George Cross, symbol of the English. Searching for a more Australian symbol, the government in 1912 replaced the St George Cross with the badges of the federating states. With the creation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911, the blue ensign flew at the jackstaff at the bow of its warships but, at Britain's insistence, the British white ensign — the flag of Britain's Royal Navy — at the more important stern.

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FIGURE 13: For the Australian Natives' Association active in London during the war 26 January was no longer Foundation Day but Australia Day by 1918. Source: Australian Unity Limited Archives Melbourne

Against this background, how was Anniversary Day faring as a national symbol? The introduction of the Britain-centred Empire Day and its impact in schools intensified ANA discussion about finding an appropriate national day for Australia. Its NSW branch, feeling that 26 January was the 'day which gave us a bad start', proposed replacing Anniversary Day with Foundation Day on 29 April, the day Captain Cook first landed on the east coast at Botany Bay in 1770. But the ANA's interstate conference preferred to retain 26 January.

During World War I, 30 July 1915 became Australia Day: a way of raising funds for the war by drawing on Australians' pride in their soldiers' achievements at Gallipoli and on their growing confidence in being Australian (figures 12 and 13). Australian ensigns became more popular, though there was confusion about which one citizens were allowed to use: the blue (in British tradition the flag for government, not people) or the red? After the war the use of Australian ensigns continued to be controversial, unless they were accompanied by the national flag, the Union Jack. Australians' bitter division over conscription for overseas service during the war had made debate about their dual nationality and its symbols controversial.

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FIGURE 14a: Menu for the Australian Natives' Association's Foundation Day luncheon in Melbourne in 1924: note the ANA Pudding. Source: Australian Unity Limited Archives Melbourne 

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FIGURE 14b: The list of toasts at the Australian Natives' Association's Foundation Day luncheon in 1924 was much shorter than that of the United Australians' dinner in 1837 (see figure 1). Source: Australian Unity Limited Archives Melbourne

Nevertheless, the ANA in Victoria persisted in its campaign to promote 26 January, which in that state was known as Foundation Day. Its Foundation Day lunch, a feature from the early twentieth century to the 1920s celebrating the anniversary of the Commonwealth and of 'Australian Colonisation', became a dinner in the late twenties, and then a 'smoke social' (figures 14a and b). The decision of the ANA annual conference in Victoria in March 1930 to name 26 January Australia Day was the beginning of its campaign to persuade Victorian and other Australian governments to observe that day as Australia Day 'with the prominent display of the Australian flag' (figure 15). But further, the ANA wanted Australia Day to be celebrated on the same day, that is, on the Monday following the 26th, unless the 26th was a Monday. Success followed in Victoria in 1931, while some states persisted with 'Foundation Day' and New South Wales retained 'Anniversary Day'. But in 1935 the ANA president in Victoria was pleased to report that, with the support of the prime minister and the other ANA state boards of directors, for the first time the name of the day and the timing of the celebration were uniform throughout the country.

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FIGURE 15: By 1931, in contrast to 1924, the Australian Natives' Association in Melbourne was promoting 26 January as Australia Day, using the Australian red ensign, the most commonly used Australian flag on land. Source: Australian Unity Limited Archives Melbourne

 Next - 1938: The Sesquicentenary and The Day of Mourning