Australia Day – a history

Australia Day has been the centre of political debate in recent years with arguments for changing the date and calls to rename 26 January Invasion Day or Survival Day and cases for maintaining the status quo on the other. The first argument puts the case that choosing 26 January to celebrate ignores more than 60,000 years of Australian history, and is choosing a day that will always be problematic for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. The latter argument is that 26 January marks the beginning of what we have become as a nation. With the commentary running hot once again this year, we felt it timely to reflect a little on the history of commemorating Australia Day.

It is sometimes stated that Australia Day marks the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’. In fact, the ‘First Fleet’ arrived in Botany Bay between 18 January and 20 January in 1788. Commodore Arthur Phillip and his party found the Bay lacking (and not up to Cook’s review) so the ships sailed on to Port Jackson, which Phillip named Sydney Cove, and weighed anchor there on 26 January. Once the business of establishing the colony had been taken care of, and British arrivals in New South Wales began to reflect on their own history – as separate to the ‘mother country’ – people chose this day to commemorate the establishment of the colony. In the early nineteenth century people in Sydney began referring to this event as ‘First Landing Day’ or ‘Foundation Day’.

Image: group of men in 18th century costume raising a Union Jack flag

Image courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, FL3141725,
Public Domain

Governor Macquarie officially acknowledged ‘Australia Day’ as a public holiday in Sydney in 1818. In 1838 it was proclaimed as an annual event. The event continued to grow in New South Wales. As a sense of Australian identity began to develop among some groups, there began to be a push for a wider commemoration. The Australian Natives Association (ANA), was among the groups which sprang up in the nineteenth century advocating for a sense of Australian pride. Established in Victoria, it quickly spread to the other colonies. Membership was exclusively Australian-born people of European background (primarily British) and for many years exclusively male, a separate branch called the Australasian Women’s Association (AWA) formed in 1900. The ANA was to play a role in advocating for Federation, and later a national Australia Day.

In the meantime, for the centenary of the arrival at Sydney Cove in 1888, events were held in many of the Australian colonies to mark ‘Anniversary Day’. South Australia did not have a full public holiday at that stage, but a number of prominent South Australians joined the official events in Sydney, along with representatives from other colonies.

While the attendance of the representatives from the various colonies was an early show of unity, support across the borders was mixed. Reporting from The South Australian Advertiser was not entirely enthusiastic:

It cannot be said that to-day is in any sense the anniversary of a common birthday, for some of these colonies were established on quite independent terms. New South Wales, though the senior, is not the parent colony of all the other members of the group. Nevertheless, the whole of them cordially agree in observing its centenary, and thereby present to the world the spectacle of a united Australia for once at least.

‘The Advertiser: THURSDAY, JANUARY 26, 1888’

During the late nineteenth century the focus in South Australia remained on our own ‘Anniversary Day’, or ‘Proclamation Day‘.  In 1901 the colonies federated and became the Commonwealth of Australia, but it wasn’t until 1910 that we adopted 26 January as ‘Federation Day’ here in South Australia.

State History Collection, HT 85.2564, Australia Day Badge

State History Collection, HT 1985.2564, Australia Day Badge

The idea of Australia Day was adopted nationally for a different purpose during the First World War. Various fundraisers were held, marking many different days, and Australia Day badges like the one in our picture were sold to raise money for the war effort. The first of these is believed to be have been on 30 July 1915 (read more about that on the Australian War Memorial website). Numerous people in South Australia joined in these fundraising efforts, both on 30 July 1915 and on a range of dates in following years.

The first time every Australian state celebrated 26 January as Australia Day was in 1935. This was after a concerted push from the Australian Natives Association who lobbied to have a ‘uniform’ celebration across the nation. It was from this campaign that the practice of having a public holiday on the Monday following 26 January was adopted.

From this point the tradition grew, but it was not without its detractors, and the current arguments about recognition of the meaning of the date for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are certainly not new. On the 150th anniversary of the official proclamation of British settlement at Sydney Cove, in 1938, an Aboriginal Day of Mourning was held. The meeting of Aboriginal people at the Australian Hall in Sydney on 26 January that year called for ‘full citizen status and equality in the community’. This protest against the ‘seizure’ of country was in stark contrast to the pageantry of the New South Wales government’s official celebration.

Despite the Day of Mourning, the practice of celebrating Australia Day continued. In the years following the organisation of Australia Day events became more formalised, and new traditions were introduced including the link with Australian citizenship ceremonies. In 1946 an Australia Day Celebrations Committee formed in Melbourne, the precursor to the Australia Day Council. Similar organisations followed in other states, and in 1979 a National Australia Day Committee was established in Canberra. Throughout this time Australians remained legal British subjects, and while the ‘Nationality and Citizenship Act’ symbolically recognised Australian citizenship for the first time in 1948, Australians were officially British subjects until 1984. The same year formal Australian citizenship was fully adopted, the National Australia Day Council, based in Sydney, took over coordination of events on Australia Day. Other practices, such as the Australia Day awards, were established as Australia Day activities continued to evolve. The first Australian of the Year was appointed in 1960. (Read a longer history and timeline from Dr Elizabeth Kwan on the National Australia Day Ltd. website.)

Shortly after the introduction of Australian citizenship, in 1988, Sydney marked the Bicentenary of British arrival in Sydney Harbour under the catch-cry ‘Celebration of a Nation’. Once again official events concentrated on ceremony and spectacle, and national debates on the historical interpretation of Australia Day were again in the news. Aboriginal people renamed the day ‘Invasion Day’ and a large protest was staged in Sydney.

Image: banner with the text 'Aboriginal people claim all citizens to honour and uphold the 1836 South Australian Letters Patent.'

In 2011 protesters also targeted the Proclamation Day ceremony in Glenelg, with reference to the Letters Patent. This document acknowledges Aboriginal rights in South Australia.

Since 1988 conflicting attitudes toward Australia Day have continued to spark debate and often heated commentary in Australia’s news platforms. Recently Triple J announced it would be moving their Hottest 100 broadcast so that it no longer fell on Australia Day. This was followed by claims that former ABC chairman Justin Milne tried to stop the move. Acknowledging the negative associations for many people in Australia’s Indigenous communities, several local councils have chosen to move citizenship ceremonies from Australia Day. This prompted a reaction from the Federal Government, with moves to ensure councils hold citizenship ceremonies on 26 January.

Calls to ‘change the date‘ have grown in volume, while at the same time other calls argue that Australia Day is a day to celebrate what we have become as a nation, and polls on the topic of changing the date vary widely. What do you think?



  • Jan Brinkworth says:

    I find it very interesting that the major proponent for the celebration on January 26 was the ANA —- an exclusive white male, mainly Anglo-Saxon organisation. I suspect this is a little known fact and perhaps a good reason to re-examine the whole issue of “Australia Day”

    • Catherine Manning says:

      I don’t think they were the only group advocating Jan, but they certainly pop up visibly, and are mentioned a few times in the Australia Day Council’s official history of Australia Day. Definitely an interesting group that would be worth a bit more research.

  • David Walker says:

    I’m yet to hear an argument against changing the date that doesn’t boil down to “we just shouldn’t”. If it bothers that many people and the opponents can’t put together a valid argument for keeping it the same then I think we have an answer.

  • Janet Scarfe says:

    Thank you Catherine for this informative and interesting piece on the history of Australia Day. It really adds to our understanding of national days when we can see how their observance and significance change (wax and wane) over time and place. (For a fascinating read on the history of Anzac Day, see Carolyn Holbrook, Anzac: An Unauthorised Biography, 2014.)
    Wattle Day (1 September) has been mooted as a possible and creative alternative date for Australia Day. The wattle is free of connection with events (landings, the constitution), is timeless (embracing pre and post white settlements, indigenous and non-indigenous), and has been used as a symbol of Australia (in WW1, Australian Honour insignia, schools). It has been used for times of celebration and times of mourning. The day itself is the first day of spring and would provide a welcome public holiday after the long gap since June (no small consideration!). Tony Wright’s piece arguing for Wattle Day in the Fairfax press last year is worth reading (
    Let’s have more blogs like this from the History Trust.

  • Darian Hiles says:

    26 January is simply a valid symbolic turning point from predominantly Aboriginal culture to our modern western one. It shouldn’t be celebrated in itself but Australia today can be, so we should just return to the long weekend based on 26 January and celebrate the sequence: An authentic Aboriginal Culture Day on the Saturday, settlement and citizenship ceremonies on the Sunday and an Australia Day celebrating our present and future on the Monday public holiday.

    • Catherine Manning says:

      Thank you for your thoughts Darian. I think regardless of where you stand on the date it’s interesting to learn more about our history, I certainly found out a few new things about how Australia Day developed researching this post.

      • Darian Hiles says:

        But it’s the learning about Aboriginal history that’s consistently missing. Coordinated Aboriginal society covered the whole of Australia. Individual elders travelled vast distances to attend regular meetings at recognised points across the continent. Continental Australia was their domain. The problem was that the settlers didn’t understand this and, in fact, weren’t capable of understanding it.

        • Catherine Manning says:

          A good point Darian – and there’s probably not enough Aboriginal history in the post above given my focus when I wrote it.

  • Carmel Pascale says:

    This is an excellent article. I’m just wondering where SA used “Federation Day” when they adopted the holiday in 1910? I’m researching this as well and I’ve only found references to “Foundation Day”, but “Federation Day” fits much better with my own analysis.

  • Lesley Finlayson says:

    In researching Adelaide Hills history I found that WW1 community support and fundraising events were held as “Australia Day” events at different times in different villages.-eg: July in Mylor /Stirling West in August. Of course no mention at all of Aboriginal community-except as fancy dress subject. We are slowly spreading understanding of Aboriginal cultures and their stories. To be proud Australians we need to learn, reflect and work to reconcile on many issues, including Australia Day. I fear Australia Day is becoming a “Sacred totem” pushed by some and blocking our general discussion. Thank you for your informative piece . I wish it was widely read.

    • Catherine Manning says:

      Thanks for sharing Lesley,
      We definitely need wider reflection on Aboriginal history in South Australia. A challenge for us here at the History Trust to address as well.

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