Thousands protest on Australia Day over aboriginal injustices

SYDNEY • Thousands of Australians staged protest marches yesterday, demanding that the date of Australia Day, Jan 26, be changed as it celebrates the arrival of white settlement and the beginning of injustices suffered by the country's disadvantaged Aborigines.

Tens of thousands of people - many wearing the black, yellow and red colours of the aboriginal flag - gathered in Melbourne, The Age newspaper reported, while thousands more took to the streets of Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

For many Aborigines, who trace their lineage on the island continent back 50,000 years, Jan 26 is "Invasion Day", the anniversary of the beginning of British colonisation of their lands and their brutal subjugation, reported Reuters.

"I'm here to commemorate all the aboriginal people who were murdered during the first stage of settlement," protester Neville Scarlett told The Age.

While the rallies were mostly peaceful, in Sydney, a 20-year-old man was arrested and a police officer and protester were injured, New South Wales state police said.

Organisers Fighting In Resistance Equally estimated the turnout at the Sydney protest to be at 3,000 to 5,000. In comparison, about 65,000 people were at Parramatta Park and thousands more flocked to watch Australia Day events on Sydney Harbour, reported The Daily Telegraph.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he did not support changing the date of Australia Day, which is a public holiday with festivities including fireworks over Sydney Harbour and ancient aboriginal ceremonies. "Everyone is entitled to a point of view, but I think most Australians accept Jan 26 as Australia Day," he told reporters in the national capital Canberra, according to Reuters.

The protests come at a time when right-wing nationalist politics is on the rise in Australia, as in the United States and Europe, and there is little political appetite to tackle the issue.

Aborigines gained citizenship only in 1967 and a vote on whether to recognise Aborigines in the Constitution as the country's first people has been on hold for years.

Australia's 700,000 or so indigenous people still struggle with the impact of colonisation and track near the bottom of the country's 23 million citizens in almost every economic and social indicator.

They have a lower life expectancy than other Australians and make up 27 per cent of those in prison, but are just 3 per cent of the population, reported Reuters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'Thousands protest on Australia Day over aboriginal injustices'. Print Edition | Subscribe