Australia Day

26 January 2015

95 days to go

Australia Day, 26 January: A day for all Australians?

The Bicentenary gave the National Australia Day Council (NADC) a great boost, with bicentennial community committees across the country converting to Australia Day committees where they did not already exist. In 1990 the Council became an incorporated public company. Its board, appointed from the community by the federal government, was expected to adopt 'a more entrepreneurial approach'. The government hoped that the corporate sector's financial contribution to Australia Day would eventually match its own.37 

Cooperation between the NADC and the states and territories in planning and implementing Australia Day programs proved to be a constant challenge. The Council, after consultation with its forum, provided the national focus; the state and territory councils were the 'arms and legs' implementing it. But criticism that the Bicentenary had been a NSW rather than national celebration, led some to say that the Australian of the Year Award presentations should not always be in Sydney. Although an attempt in 1992 to move the ceremony to Melbourne failed, in 1994 the presentations began to alternate between Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane. The same year the states and territories made permanent their concession of 1988: a holiday on 26 January, in place of the long weekend. The NADC, after years of campaigning for the change, had reason to exclaim in its annual report: 'One nation - one day - Australia's Day!'38

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FIGURE 19: Mandawuy Yunupingu, Australian of the Year, and Kieren Perkins, Young Australian of the Year, Sydney, 1992. Source: National Australia Day Council

By 2000 the Council's difficulties in retaining corporate sponsors led its national office to return to Canberra from Sydney — a significant symbolic shift. The shift was further strengthened after the federal election of November 2001 by the Council's transfer from the Communications, Information Technology and the Arts portfolio to that of the Prime Minister and Cabinet — an initiative of the Council's national director. Against this shifting background of sponsorship, marketing and merchandising, and increased government support, the Council widened the range of its national programs. The most important one continued to be the Australian of the Year Award, with its offshoot, the Young Australian of the Year Award in 1979 (figure 19). Added later were the Senior Australian of the Year Award (1999) and Australia's Local Hero Award (2003).  Significantly, in 2004 the Council fixed the announcement of these award winners — the focus of Australia Day — in Canberra, reaching out to all age groups through a nationally televised event in front of Parliament House on the eve of Australia Day.39

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FIGURE 20: Changing logos, changing messages: the National Australia Day Committee/Council logo from 1980 to the present. Source: National Australia Day Council; Elizabeth Kwan; National Archives of Australia: C4688, box 1.

Behind these changes the prime purpose of the national organisation remained substantially the same: from 'developing national pride' in 1980; to 'Inspir[ing] national pride and spirit to enrich the life of the nation' in 2005-06. However, the logo had changed dramatically during the same period, reflecting changing ways of imagining the nation and its birthday: from a map of Australia with predominantly Anglo-Saxon faces, to the merging of the map with the Australian national flag, to a hand reaching for a star (the Commonwealth Star?), to a map of coloured ribbons and figures, symbolising people of different races and backgrounds celebrating joyously together (figure 20). Market research surveys charted Australians' growing awareness of Australia Day (from 75.2 per cent in 1980 to 99.6 per cent in 2007), but also their limited understanding of its significance. Those who attended an organised Australia Day event were better informed, the majority of those events including local citizenship ceremonies and flag raisings.40

Citizenship ceremonies had become increasingly public affairs since the symbolic creation of Australian citizenship in legislation in 1948, though Australians remained British subjects until 1984. With the transfer of ceremonies from the courts to local government in the early 1950s, they became central to Australia Day as local community events. The NADC encouraged citizens attending these ceremonies to welcome new citizens making their pledge to Australia and its people by responding with an affirmation. A moving version of such a ceremony was held in Darwin in 2007, one of nine ceremonies held across the Northern Territory. The raising or display of the national flag  (figure 21), symbolising the country and nation, often accompanied such ceremonies-a reminder of the raising of the Union Jack when Captain Cook claimed New South Wales for the British king in 1770 and Governor Phillip occupied it in 1788.41

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FIGURE 21: Camel pioneer escort, official flag raising ceremony, Australia Day 1986, Yulara, Northern Territory. Source: Australia Day Council Northern Territory

In promoting Australia Day, the ANA in Victoria had encouraged the display of the Australian flag at citizenship ceremonies from the late 1940s, a practice taken up by one of its members, Arthur Calwell, then Labor Minister for Immigration. The Menzies Liberal-Country Party government subsequently insisted that the Union Jack also be used. From 1954, after the Flags Act in effect replaced the Union Jack with the Australian blue ensign as the national flag, Australians began to use it more confidently, especially by the 1970s. The National Australia Day Forum urged the Committee in its second year 'to promote wider flying of the Australian flag'. The flag became central to the NADC's promotion of Australia Day, especially with the use of the second logo (merging map and flag), the 'Show the Flag on Australia's Day' motto of 1986 and the TV commercials using it in the lead up to 1988 (figure 22).42

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FIGURE 22: The National Australia Day Council's motto, introduced in 1986 in preparation for the Bicentenary, centred on the national flag. Source: National Australia Day Council, National Archives of Australia: C4688, box 1

As the nation's chief symbol, the flag remains important to the Council. This is despite the significant division within the Australian community over the flag's symbolism, in particular the Union Jack in the place of honour — a reminder of imperial requirements at the time the new Australian Commonwealth acquired its two shipping ensigns approved by the British Admiralty. By 1998 52 per cent of Australians wanted a new flag. However, Australians have not yet resolved their differences over the place of the Union Jack on their flag and the ties to the British head of state it represents. For Aboriginal Australians in particular the Union Jack on the national flag reminded them of the British invasion of their country and their subsequent dispossession. Sol Bellear, a respected Aboriginal spokesman who had served on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (Australia), insisted that 'Aboriginal reconciliation can never be achieved unless there is a new Australian flag without the Union Jack'. That Council also rejected Australia Day on 26th January as a national day.43

From 1993 the NADC formally recognised the need to encourage reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians in Australia Day celebrations. Later the Council worked with Reconciliation Australia, the private organisation which in 2001 succeeded the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan for implementation in 2007. This initiative suggested a healing role for the Council in bringing Australians together, despite the difficulties of the date's associations and the alienating symbolism of the flag. The Council has taken several steps, including the introduction of Australia Day Dawn, 'a moment of reflection before celebration', to make Australia Day celebrations more inclusive (figure 23). The first of these dawn gatherings was in 2005 at Uluru with the Mutujulu community.44

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FIGURE 23: 'Peace', the work by three Yuat artists, was the basis for a huge 100 metre by 100 metre image created at New Norcia, Western Australia for Australia Day 2007. Source: National Australia Day Council

The Council's re-ordering of priorities in its mission statement in 2004 indicated a significant change in thinking since 2002. 'Unite all Australians through celebration…' was first, not third, having swapped places with the demoted 'Promoting Australian achievement…', which became 'Promote good citizenship…'. The second priority, 'Promote the meaning of Australia Day…', included 'activity' and 'reflection' as well as 'education', 'discussion and debate'. The NADC has worked closely with federal government departments on issues relating to citizenship and education, and commissioned a range of resources: for adults as well as students. These initiatives are important in helping Australians adapt to new social realities. For example, nearly 60 per cent of some 10 000 Australian citizens surveyed in 2003 about what was necessary to be 'truly Australian' thought that being born in Australia was 'fairly important'. Nearly 40 per cent thought that 'Australian ancestry' was 'fairly important'. Such attitudes exclude more than 40 per cent of Australians who were either not born in Australia, or, though native-born, had overseas-born parents.45

To summarise, New South Wales — Sydney especially — has long celebrated 26 January to mark the beginning of British occupation of Australia. Victoria and the other Australian states and territories, persuaded by the Australian Natives' Association, came to accept Australia Day by 1935, celebrating it together with a long weekend. Since 1979, federal government promotion of an Australia Day that was less British and more Australian gave the day a higher profile in the hope of unifying Australia's increasingly diverse population. The long weekend gave way to the day itself in 1994, and ten years later Canberra displaced Sydney as the day's focal point.

However, Aboriginal Australians have continued to feel excluded from what has long been a British pioneering settler celebration, symbolised by the raising of the Union Jack and later the Australian flag which bears the British flag. Debate over the date and nature of Australia Day continues as the National Australia Day Council seeks to meet the challenge of making 26 January a day all Australians can accept and enjoy.

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