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As we approach January 26, I always follow the discussion around the day with some curiosity. What a range of views and varying degrees of passion, from fully supportive, outraged or ambivalent. Neither the pigment of skin nor the sexual preference clearly defines, in my experience, where one will fit.

The history around the day is often in debate and the meaning for people too, was it Cook and his claiming of already occupied territory for a monarchy with an insatiable demand for global dominance? Was it the unfurling of the Union Jack by Captain Arthur Phillips in Port Jackson? Was it the day in 1949 when the 1948 Nationality and Citizenship Act came into effect? Or the day when those who came from foreign shores became a citizen? At school, were you taught that the day echoed the words to ‘We Are One’? “We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on earth we come. We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice”?

A look back into the pages of history and it seems previous generations were also a little confused on the day. Prior to the 1930s, it appears Foundation Day was the preferred term. A parliamentary research paper by Margaret Harrison-Smith notes that Tasmania celebrated ‘Foundation Day’ on January 26 from 1888.

The Age on January 27, 1891, stated “If there is to be a commemorative day on which Australians can hold up their heads proudly in the sense that they are part of a great nation, it should certainly be associated with some event worthy of commemoration…”

But even then, they didn’t necessarily agree with what they were celebrating.

“With regard to the 26th January, the doubt has been raised whether it is the very best day we could celebrate. There are many days which commend themselves equally, if not more forcibly, to the consideration of national spirit. For example, there was the first visit of an English navigator to the shores of Australia in 1688, when Dampier touched the north-west coast.”

On February 14, 1906, the Port Lincoln, Tumby and West Coast Recorder reported, “On January 26 – the date Australia celebrates as Foundation Day – the Sirius, the transport, and the store ships assembled in Sydney Cove, leaving behind them in Botany Bay two French ships under La Perouse. The debarkation at Sydney Cove began, ground was cleared, buildings erected, and on February 7, 1788, a regular form of government was established for Australia.”

The date of February 7, 1788, comes up a few times. In the Australian National Library, an article on the Captain Arthur Phillip speech gave weight to the flag unfurling on February 7; “Three eyewitnesses to the flag-raising ceremony on 7 Feb 1788 all recorded their memories of the proceedings independently.”

In The West Australian on January 26, 1938, it reports to have a speech account written by Lieutenant King of the Supply. On January 26, “the Union Jack was hoisted on the shore and the Marines being drawn up under it, the Governor and Officers to the right and the convicts to the left, their Majesties and Prince of Wales’ health, with success to the colony, was drank in four glasses of porter, after which a feu de joie was fired and the whole gave three cheers…”

A view shared by Professor Helen Irving, a constitutional law expert from the University of Sydney, “The first boat of the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay on 18 January, 1788, but the Fleet then moved to Port Jackson (what became Sydney), where on 26 January 1788, the British flag was raised.”

By the late 1930s, Foundation Day was growing old and this 30-year-old proclaimed Commonwealth of Australia was looking for a name more fitting for the day.

The editor of the Australian Woman’s Weekly, on January 30, 1937, wrote “Tuesday, January 26, 1937 – occurs this week, although the Australian states will celebrate it by a public holiday on different dates. Partly because of these varying dates, but largely because its popular name, ‘Foundation Day’, is misleading, a big proportion of Australians are unaware of the occasion the holiday commemorates.

“Many believe it celebrates the foundation of the Commonwealth, or of parliamentary government in Australia. Others associate it with the foundation of the state in which they live.”

On January 26, 1937, The Canberra Times stated “January 26 is a date which challenges all Australians to review the past, and so gain courage to face the difficulties and opportunities of today and tomorrow.”

“Anniversary Day: Whatever legislators may say and with whatever uniformity Australian Governments declare that Anniversary Day shall be celebrated on a date that is not an anniversary day, January 26 shall remain in the minds of the people an outstanding date…”

By 1938, newspapers of the time had a mix of Australia Day and Foundation Day. Post WWII in 1946, the Australia Day Council was formed and to quote Melbourne’s The Argus “The Australia Day Council was formed in 1946 to foster Australian patriotism.”

In September 1948, then-immigration minister Arthur Calwell told federal parliament that when the Nationality and Citizenship Act became law “it will be proclaimed on Australia Day, the 26th of January, 1949.” The Nationality and Citizenship Act gave all people on the continent the legal standing of Australian citizens.

Whatever the day means or however you choose to view the day, may it be one of reflection and identification of the values we wish to carry forward.

I’ll leave the final word to my friend, Donald Douglas:

“We are all the same human beings, and we should stop trying to find fault with long past actions of a few that we have no connection with today.

“We must look forwards to the generosity and goodness that abounds in our society.

“We need to retrace our steps and return our beautiful country and its population back to its unique soul of love, understanding and respect for one another, and embrace our relaxed, fun loving spirit of yesteryear.”

The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper 19 January 2023

This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 19 January 2023.

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