Australia Day dividing the nation

Calls for date change, as day marking arrival of British also marks start of Aboriginal woes

More than 80 years ago, Australia's states agreed to celebrate a national day - akin to Independence Day in the United States - but the annual holiday is increasingly proving to be more divisive than unifying.

The date chosen for Australia Day - Jan 26 - marks the arrival of the British settlers in 1788.

For the Aboriginal population, however, it is a day of mourning and protest. Described by them as "Invasion Day", the date marks the beginning of a destructive period with consequences lasting till this day.

The arrival of the British settlers led to conflicts and the spread of diseases, as well as the dispossession of land and social clashes that left many indigenous communities struggling to maintain their languages and culture.

The indigenous population of about 650,000 people - almost 3 per cent of the country's population - has high rates of poverty, health problems and imprisonment.

Australia has been slow to fully recognise the historical wrongs done to the Aboriginal people and has struggled to achieve a meaningful reconciliation with them.

In the lead-up to Australia Day today, there has been a passionate debate, including strong support for a campaign called Change the Date.

Some local councils have dropped their usual celebrations and many workplaces have said people can choose to work today and take their public holiday on a different day.

Managing director Ben Beath of digital agency Loud & Clear said changing the date would promote national "healing".

"This nation's relationship with our First People is a wound that has been open for far too long," he told The Australian.

An indigenous leader, Pastor Ray Minniecon, does not support changing the date, but believes the day should be a commemoration of historical wrongs.

"It was a deliberate invasion of our people," he told SBS Television. "The massacres, the genocides of our peoples from this country and we're still suffering from the aftermath of that brutal history."

The issue has led to a rift between the political parties, particularly after the Greens announced they would campaign to change the date. "It's time that we stop papering over an issue that... has been so divisive and painful for so many of our citizens," Greens leader Richard Di Natale told Fairfax Media.

But the proposal has been staunchly opposed by the ruling coalition. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull opposed changing the date but acknowledged that European settlement had tragic consequences for Aboriginal people.

"It's a day that should unite us," he told Bay FM Radio. "I think Australia Day has become a great national celebration of everything that is magnificent and wonderful and unique about Australia. We should cherish it."

The debate is emblematic of Australia's ongoing cultural wars, which pit those demanding greater recognition of past failings against those who emphasise the benefits of Australia's European heritage.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, a staunch conservative, said: "What happened on the 26th of January 1788 was on balance, for everyone, Aboriginal people included, a good thing," he told Radio 2GB.

But indigenous leader Jackie Huggins said British civilisation had benefited from its dispossession of Aboriginal people, particularly by acquiring the land and its resources.

"I think it's about whose perception you're looking at here, whether it's a European's or an Aboriginal's," she told ABC News.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2018, with the headline 'Australia Day dividing the nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe