Why Australia Day?

An address to the men of the Australian Natives’ Association Victorian Branch

We gather here today in recognition of our national day – Australia Day. That we should do so, as nationalists, is hardly surprising. And yet it seems our commitment to our cause does not necessarily translate to a clear understanding of our motivations. For more than a decade, we have been subjected to relentless attacks on this day and calls to “change the date”; and it has been my observation that much of the enthusiasm for Australia Day that has remained, including from nationalists, stems from a desire to spurn our ideological enemies – they don’t want us to have it, so we want it all the more. This is understandable, but it is hardly the foundation for a meaningful or enduring cultural celebration. Where positive sentiment runs deeper than this, it is often limited to the view that, as our designated national day, Australia Day should be embraced and celebrated by all who take pride in our nation and feel a sense of gratitude for their place in it. This, however, does not address the question of why 26 January specifically warrants its status as our national day – a pertinent question indeed given the claim 1 January holds on that title as Federation Day – or even why it deserves acknowledgement at all. A proper defence of Australia Day, then, requires something more.

It is not my intention to address the former question here. I have long believed Federation Day a criminally overlooked observance, and I am thus reluctant to extol the merits of one day over the other. But I do wish to press the claim that, whether or not it is recognised as the national day of Australians above all others, Australia Day is a day of profound national significance. So: why should we honour Australia Day? Why is 26 January worthy of our attention?

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, because it serves as the demarcation between two remarkable achievements. When Captain Arthur Phillip stepped aboard at Sydney Cove and planted the Union Flag in 1788, it brought an end to an extraordinary journey. Over 252 days, officials, crewmen, marines, convicts, and their families on board the 11 ships of the First Fleet – almost 1500 people in total – had travelled more than 24,000km in what has since been described as one of the great sea voyages. They had endured, and ultimately overcome, enormous hardship en route. But Captain Phillip’s actions also marked the beginning of an even more remarkable and successful undertaking. Over the years and decades that followed, those same passengers of the First Fleet were joined by further convicts and freemen from the British Isles and continental Europe. Together, they toiled amid the harsh landscape, unforgiving climate, and often unprovoked attacks from the hostile Aboriginal tribes they encountered to transform a vast, inhospitable continent into the pride of the Empire. Those of us with direct ancestral connections to the men and women who sacrificed and struggled through these formative colonial years can rightly feel proud; those whose families arrived later, grateful. Either way, it is a feat worthy of remembrance.

Inextricably linked with the beginning of this nation-building process, and what we equally celebrate today, is the beginning of our connection – the white man’s connection – with this land. The great Australian nationalist Percy Stephensen described national culture – and, by extension, national identity – as a product of race and place. So it has proved to be in our case. Just as they transformed the landscape, the original settlers and their descendants were themselves transformed by the landscape. Though they at first struggled against and cursed it, they later came to accept it and, ultimately, to embrace it; and in the connections they formed with bush and outback, in the affinity they developed for the waratah and the wattle, they came to recognise that they were no longer displaced Brits and Europeans but something new – an emergent people worthy of a national identity of their own. It would take just shy of 113 years for this transformation to be fully realised and accepted through the process of Federation; but if it is only at that point that the flower of nationhood can be considered to have truly blossomed, then the arrival of the First Fleet must be recognised and remembered as the planting of the seed.

These are reasons enough for any true Australian to acknowledge and celebrate Australia Day. But as members of the Australian Natives’ Association, we have a further reason; for it is our predecessors, the men of the original incarnation of the ANA, who are largely responsible for the existence of Australia Day as we know it. Although Foundation Day, as it was formerly known, was acknowledged from the earliest days of settlement, these commemorations were for most of the first century following settlement confined to New South Wales. It was the men of the ANA in Victoria who through the 1880s led the push for national recognition of the date; and in 1888, the 100th anniversary of the landing, their campaigning bore fruit as all six colonies officially celebrated the date for the first time. Further campaigning ensured that by 1935 all states observed the day with a public holiday. Between these time points, of course, the colonies chose to unite as an independent nation; and it is difficult not to believe that the ANA’s successful push for a proto-national day did not play a role in driving the sentiment required for Federation to succeed.

We therefore honour our predecessors by continuing to honour Australia Day. But we also remind ourselves that culture is not merely inherited but created. In an age that tries to denigrate and tear down our identity at every turn, there is a temptation to treat our culture as a museum artefact, refusing to tinker with it for fear of altering it beyond recognition and thus contributing to the destruction. Such an approach, however, leads to cultural stagnation and, ultimately, decay. If we truly wish to honour our cultural heritage, we must build upon it by creating our own traditions; and we should use the men of the ANA and the enormous success of Australia Day as our model and inspiration.

And so, with these reasons in mind, I wish you all a very happy Australia Day. May we continue to honour it and those who have made it what it is as they deserve; and may our remembrance of our past serve to guide and motivate us towards a prosperous future.

M.J. Brown
Governor – ANA Victoria
26 January 2024