Today is Australia Day here in Australia, marking exactly 230 years since British settlement. This morning, I attended our Shire's Australia Day breakfast and Awards, and I was also one of the guest speakers.
Last year, I was named the 2017 Young Citizen of the Year for my local Shire, and so was invited back this year, along with the Citizen of the Year, to give a 5-10 minute speech on Australia Day and a bit about myself. Writing the speech turned out to be a lot of fun and I was excited, although nervous, to speak and share my thoughts and opinions.
Happy Australia day everyone!
As Berrigan Shire’s 2017 Young Citizen of the Year, I’ve been asked to speak to you this morning about what Australia Day means to me. It’s interesting to actually sit down and really think about our national day – for most of my life, it’s really just been a day where I come out for a cooked breakfast, see who’s been award Australia Day Awards, and spend the afternoon watching Australian films while eating lamingtons. And while those last two things haven’t changed, as I’ve gotten older, Australia Day has certainly become something more than just a day off or the reason behind a long weekend.
For me, Australia Day is about celebrating the country in which we live and how lucky we are to live here. If you look around the world, you see gun violence, terrorism, dictatorships and civil war – things we as Australians are lucky to be free of here. Yes, Australia isn’t a utopia, but compared to many countries around the world, including countries like America and the UK, we live in a pretty great country where we can actually feel relatively safe going to school or a concert, and express our own opinions.
Australia Day is also a day to reflect on where we’ve come as a nation – to look back at our rich history that has shaped the nation we are today, the good, the bad and the forgotten. I’m sure we all know that Captain James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast in April 1770, naming the land he saw New South Wales and claiming it in the name of Great Britain. Then, in 1788, on January 26, Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack at Port Jackson, establishing a penal colony with the First Fleet.
Let me, for a moment, share with you a few interesting points from early Australian history.
Of course, I’m sure we all know more about the history of this nation from Federation onwards –
I suppose some of you are sitting their wondering why you’re listening to a twenty-two year old bang on about Australia history. The reason is because history is a passion of mine and I believe it should be studied rather than left in the past and forgotten – George Santayana did say “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I am such a history nerd that I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in History through Charles Sturt University in Wagga. The goal is to be able to research, record and write history, and last year I made the first step in making that a reality – I wrote and published a history book.
Last year, the Finley Show Society held its 100th annual show. To commemorate and celebrate such an occasion, not only for the Show Society, but for the town and this region, the committee agreed to release a history book. As a member of the committee, that task fell to me. Over eight months, I read 105 years worth of newspaper articles, dating back to 1912 and covering almost every article to ever mention the show society. I also read minute books dating back to the mid-1950s, which proved difficult at times because I couldn’t read the writing – thank god my mum can decipher cursive. Plus, I read a couple of local history and show history books. All this reading and note taking turned into actually writing a book that people could read and enjoy.
And all this hard work culminated at the end of August when I finally had the finished product in my hand. It was certainly weird to see something I’d work so hard on finally finished and in physical form. Actually, the weirdest part is the realisation that there’s actually a book out there with my name on the cover, in people’s homes, and even in the Library of the high school I attended. I’ve always loved writing, but to write something that actually means something to the community I’ve grown up in is a surreal feeling. In a small way, I’ve contributed to the recording of Finley’s 140 year history. Never did I think that by the age of twenty-two I’d have written a book, and a local history book at that.
So, you can see why history is important to me and why it’s important to the celebration of Australia Day. Since we’re talking about history, here a few fun facts when it comes to Australia Day. Records of celebrations held on January 26 date back to 1808, with the first official celebration of the formation of the colony of New South Wales held on the 30th anniversary in 1818, known as Anniversary Day. In 1915, an Australia Day committee was formed and the celebration actually took place on July 30, followed by July 28 in 1916. It wasn’t until 1935 that all Australian states and territories had adopted the use of the term ‘Australia Day’ to mark the date of January 26. Since 1988, Australia’s bicentenary, participation in Australia Day has increased, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the date has been consistently marked as Australia Day nationwide, as opposed to the Monday closest to the 26th as it had been prior. That’s just 24 years ago.
You’ve no doubt seen the debate that arises annually about changing the date of Australia Day. It’s actually been going on since before 1994, and there has always been talk about moving Australia Day to another date. I’m sure many people here today have strong feelings about this topic, one way or another. But, when you inevitably see a story on the news tonight about this date-change debate, consider for a moment what would actually change about Australia Day, other than the date?
At its core, Australia Day is about celebrating our nation, how lucky we are to live here and our vast history. It’d still be the same day of national celebration, filled with Australia Day Awards, breakfasts, citizenship ceremonies, concerts, BBQs, games of backyard cricket and trips down the river – it’d just be on another date. And if you look throughout Australian history, you’ll find that there a many dates that hold more national significance and national inclusivity than January 26 – dates that would work just as well, if not better, as our national day.
Interestingly, a recent Australia Institute survey actually suggested that less than half of Australian’s can correctly identify the reason for Australia Day being on January 26. An article in the Herald Sun only yesterday said that it was Captain Cook who established the first colonial settlement on January 26, 1788, despite his death in 1779. This is exactly why history is an important part of our national day.
In reality January 26 really celebrates the formation of the Colony of New South Wales, rather than the nation of Australia, making it lack national significance. If you look at Australian history, you’ll see that there are actually many other important dates that would work just as well, if not better, for Australia Day – there’s January 1 which marks the birth of modern Australia with Federation; March 3 which marks the Australia Acts commencement, sometimes referred to as Australia’s Independence Day; May 9 which marks the opening of the first Federal Parliament; July 9 which is Constitution Day and marks the day that Queen Victoria gave her assent to the Constitution of Australia; October 24 which marks the day that Henry Parkes, the Father of Federation, gave his pivotal speech at Tenterfield; December 3 which marks the Eureka Stockade and the birthplace of Australian democracy; or December 12 which marks the recommendation that the name of Australia be adopted.
There’s many who argue that changing the date is rewriting history, but it’s actually acknowledging the full history of January 26 – the date that not only saw the arrival of white settlers, but the date an entire Indigenous population saw their homeland invaded. Australians come from all walks of life, and our national day should be one that allows all Australians to celebrate, rather than divide us.
Marcus Garvey said “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture, is like a tree without roots.” Our history is how we got here today, and it shapes where we are heading in the future.
I’d like to thank the Berrigan Shire for holding these awards every year and inviting me to speak this year. And to all the award nominees, I congratulate you – no matter who walks away with that fancy plaque, you’ve all been recognised for the contributions made to our communities.
I hope you all have a wonderful Australia Day.
The feedback I received after giving this speech was amazing - so many people commenting on how well I spoke and how interesting they found it and that they actually walked away having learnt a little something. Whether they took anything away in regards to changing the date is another thing, but I do hope it made someone look at our national day differently and why it is important to recognise the need to change. I hope this has piqued your interest in Australian history and the Change the Date debate.
See You Soon!
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