Thousands of people have marched in cities across Australia, rallying in support of Indigenous rights and protesting against marking their country’s national day on the date that the British colonial fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour more than two centuries ago.
In Sydney, the capital of New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – large crowds gathered in the city’s central business district on Thursday, with some people carrying Aboriginal flags and chanting “Australia Day is dead”.
Indigenous activist Paul Silva said the national holiday – which some label “Invasion Day” – should be abolished.
“If someone invaded your home, murdered your family, and stole your land, I can 100 percent guarantee that family would not be celebrating that day,” he told the crowd.
“I don’t know how it makes sense to any citizen of this country to go out and have a barbecue and celebrate genocide,” he said.
Indigenous poet Lizzie Jarrett said Sydney was “ground zero for a genocide of First Nations people”.
“You think we’re angry? Wouldn’t you be angry?” she asked the crowd.
— Zac Crellin (@zacrellin) January 26, 2023
Indigenous Australians have lived on the Australian continent for at least 65,000 years, but have suffered widespread discrimination and oppression since the arrival of the British in 1788. Australian historian Lyndall Ryan has estimated that more than 10,000 Indigenous people were killed in 400 separate massacres since British colonisation first began.
At present, some 880,000 people out of Australia’s population of 25 million identify as Indigenous.
They were banned from voting in some states and territories until the 1960s and lag behind other Australians on economic and social indicators in what the government calls “entrenched inequality”.
Their life expectancies are also years shorter than other Australians and they suffer disproportionately high rates of suicide, domestic violence and are far more likely to die in police custody.
In the Australian capital, Canberra, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese marked Australia Day with a flag-raising and citizenship ceremony where he honoured the nation’s Indigenous people.
“Let us all recognise the unique privilege that we have to share this continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture,” the prime minister said.
But while he acknowledged that it was a “difficult day” for Indigenous Australians, he said there were no plans to change the holiday’s date.
A moving Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony this morning in Canberra. pic.twitter.com/cP72s5Rj4f
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) January 25, 2023
An annual poll by market research company Roy Morgan released this week showed nearly two-thirds of Australians say January 26 should be considered “Australia Day”, largely unchanged from a year ago. The rest believe it should be “Invasion Day”.
Amid the debate, some companies have adopted flexibility around the observance of the holiday. Australia’s largest telecoms company, Telstra, this year gave its staff the option to work on January 26 and take another day off instead.
“For many First Nations peoples, Australia Day … marks a turning point that saw lives lost, culture devalued, and connections between people and places destroyed,” Telstra chief executive officer Vicki Brady wrote on LinkedIn.
Protests against Australia Day also took place in other Australian state capitals, including Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.
Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke, reporting from the rally in Brisbane, said momentum for abolishing Australia Day has grown over the years.
“People here are saying this is a day of mourning,” she said. “They are rallying in protest against the celebrations of modern Australia, on a day where they believe was a huge displacement of the First Nations people. So this group is certainly growing in numbers. Polls have shown that the younger generations are increasingly supporting this.”
This year’s holiday also comes as Albanese’s centre-left Labor Party government plans a referendum on recognising Indigenous people in the country’s constitution and requiring consultation with them on decisions that affect their lives.
The public will vote on the change – called the Indigenous Voice to Parliament – in a binding referendum later this year.
There is currently no mention of Indigenous Australians in the constitution, which was adopted in 1901. And the proposal to recognise Indigenous Australians in the charter was a pledge the Labor Party took to a general election last May when it ended almost a decade of conservative Liberal-National coalition government.
But altering the constitution is difficult, requiring the majority of votes in a majority of states.
The feat has occurred only eight times in 44 attempts since the federation came into being in 1901.
A successful referendum would bring Australia in line with Canada, New Zealand and the United States in formally recognising Indigenous populations.
Some Indigenous Australians have also voiced opposition to the proposal.
Several people at Sydney’s Invasion Day rally carried a banner that said: “Vote no to referendum. We deserve more than a voice.”
In Melbourne, Indigenous activist Uncle Gary Foley said “the voice” would only “be cosmetic”.
“Like lipstick on a pig, it will not address the deep underlying issues that still pervade Australian society and that primary issue is white Australian racism,” he said.