There have been calls to change the date of Australia Day/Invasion Day since as far back as 1938.
January 26 marks the day in 1788 when the First Fleet landed in Australia to establish the colony of New South Wales. This is a day of mourning for most Aboriginal people and is seen by many as an inappropriate and offensive day to celebrate as a nation.
This year’s debate around the date has added context of the recent Voice to Parliament referendum. The failure of the Voice referendum demonstrated the reluctance of many Australians to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ aspirations for social and political change.
Changing the date of Australia Day and the proposed Voice to Parliament have both been calls for Australia to acknowledge Australia’s history and the enduring legacy of colonisation.
Many explanations have been offered for the resounding No vote from non-Indigenous people in the referendum. Our new research to be published later this year, suggests community ignorance and apathy towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues may lie at the core of the No vote. This could also drive reluctance to change the date of Australia Day.
Our research findings
Following the Voice to Parliament referendum, our team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers conducted a survey with a representative sample of around 2,500 non-Indigenous Australians. This survey addressed how they felt about issues including changing the date of Australia Day, displaying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags in official and public places, and Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome to Country ceremonies.
More than two-thirds (68.6%) of No voters were opposed to changing the date of Australia Day (compared with only 21.6% of Yes voters). No voters were more likely to support the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags and were less supportive of Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies.
Our survey also explored how people’s views on the lasting impacts of colonisation and their knowledge of Australian history, particularly regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, shape their support of these issues.
In an initial survey two weeks before the Voice vote, we asked our representative sample of non-Indigenous Australians about their views on a range of issues and perspectives relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We also gave them a short quiz on their knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. This included questions about Australia’s colonial history (such as self-determination policies, native title, and the 1967 referendum).
We found that on average Australians fared poorly on our quiz – with almost three-quarters (72.9%) of our sample failing to correctly answer more than half of our multiple-choice questions correctly.
Interestingly, there was a clear pattern whereby Yes voters had a better knowledge of colonial history.
Knowledge is a large factor in attitudes towards First Nations people
Our research found the more historical knowledge people have, the more strongly they support changing the date of Australia Day, implementing the rest of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and rejecting calls to remove Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags or to ban Acknowledgement of and Welcome to Country.
People who knew more of the nation’s history also tended to agree that colonisation has an ongoing impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that reparations are needed to address these impacts. Research has also shown people who participate in Invasion Day rallies to protest Australia Day are more likely to acknowledge the ongoing impact of colonisation.
These results suggest knowledge of Australia’s history influenced how people voted in the Voice referendum, and people’s support for changing the date of Australia Day.
Research in the United States has shown that ignorance of racial oppression throughout history is linked to present-day denial of racism. Our research suggests a similar pattern may be evident here in Australia.
So what now?
The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for a Makarrata Commission to begin the process of Truth Telling about Australia’s history at a national level. Our findings highlight how the establishment of formal truth telling will be vital to the process of education, reconciliation and healing in Australia.
It’s widely acknowledged that school curricula often fall short in addressing historical narratives and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Many students graduate with a limited understanding of the ongoing impacts of colonisation on Indigenous communities. Efforts to incorporate Indigenous knowledge in education curricula are continuing. However progress is often slow and politically fraught.
Ignorance of the past is not only a product of failed school curricula though, as suggested in historian Henry Reynolds’ old question “why weren’t we told?”. The history is now more available than ever, so there is no excuse for Australians to remain unaware of the past.
Public support to change the date has been steadily growing. Some changes in national celebrations have happened at the local government level. The City of Fremantle was the first in the country not to celebrate Australia Day, and in 2024 is instead focusing on a year-long program of Truth Telling.
Some public institutions have made similar changes, such as radio station Triple J moving its annual Hottest 100 to the fourth weekend of January each year instead of January 26. Federal and state governments, though, have shown little appetite for change.
As Australians come together to protest or celebrate Australia Day this year, it will be a clear reminder that we remain divided over how to commemorate the past.
This country’s colonial history needs to be understood and acknowledged by all Australians if we are to move forward together as a nation.
The authors acknowledge their fellow research team members Michael Platow and Aseel Sahib for their invaluable contributions.