Last Thursday was a very important day for many Australians. January 26th is Australia Day, a national holiday much like America’s 4th of July or Bastille Day in France. It’s a holiday that neither I nor my family have ever celebrated, with good reason – the date marks the arrival of the first fleet at Port Jackson in 1788, and the day is considered by many to be a celebration of the brutal colonisation of Australia and the deaths of Aboriginal people.
Those who oppose the holiday have named it ‘Invasion Day’, and every Jan 26th there are protests by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians across the country. In my home city (Melbourne) the protest had up to 50,000 people, possibly even more than the Australia Day parade happening at the same time. That is an extraordinary number, especially for a protest that many have deemed unnecessary, unpatriotic, or ‘political correctness gone mad’ as Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce put it.
But what is curious about these protests is the way they have always been so closely linked to culture, to a greater degree than most other social movements. Not only does the movement have its own culture, but it also uses and expresses the culture of Aboriginal Australians. As one Indigenous protester put it in the video linked below: ‘It’s connecting people with our culture, which is the most important thing’. In a country where Aboriginal Australians continue to experience oppression, violence, erasure and abuse, the Invasion Day protests are a crucial way to connect non-Indigenous people with Indigenous culture and recognise the importance of these issues.
Using the theories put forward by Doug McAdam in ‘Culture in Social Movements’ (1997), the culture of the movement emerges from existing cultural formations in two key ways. First of all, it uses existing ‘dominant’ cultural resources, particularly the Australia Day celebrations. As the protests are held in direct counterpoint to the parades and celebrations on the same day, they appropriate and parody existing aspects of them. The name is the most important – Australia Day is replaced with Invasion Day, which is then ‘celebrated’ ironically to make people uncomfortably aware of what January 26th really commemorates. They also take patriotic images and destroy or change them – burning Australian flags, replacing the union jack with the Aboriginal flag, and so on. National songs are played during protests with or without have their lyrics changed, particularly Waltzing Matilda, the national anthem, and I Still Call Australia Home.
The other way is the use of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander cultures (depending on the specific groups in the area), both to celebrate their continued existence and history, and to commemorate the countless lives lost since 1788. This is a positive use of culture, as it brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and demonstrates that Aboriginal Australians are still here, they still matter, and they aren’t going anywhere. You can see this explained in the video above, including snippets of a traditional Wagulora ceremony. This in particular is able to unify and harmonise the movement, and it reinforces the ideas and issues at hand both emotionally and intellectually.
Although this social movement has been going for decades, the numbers at the Melbourne protest indicate that it continues to gain strength. While the Liberal government (the Liberal party being the Conservatives) is dismissive of the requests of activists and Aboriginal elders, there remains hope that in time they will be heard and the date may finally be changed. For more information on why Australia Day is offensive and deeply disrespectful, read this article here.
I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners of the land on which I grew.
- Davidson, Helen, ‘‘What are you actually celebrating?’ Indigenous elder says Australia day debate must continue’, The Guardian, 9 February 2017
- McAdam, Doug, ‘Culture in Social Movements’ in Buechler and Cylke, Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues (1997)
Reporter, Staff, ‘Australia day 2017: Deputy prime minister calls activists ‘miserable’ as protests mar celebrations’, The Independent – Australasia, 1 January 2015
Wong, James and Jessica Carrascalao Heard, Invasion day Melbourne rally draws tens of thousands of protesters (The Age, 2017), <http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/invasion-day-melbourne-rally-draws-tens-of-thousands-of-protesters-20170126-gtz3ce.html>