Changing The Date ‘Doesn’t Take Away The Pain’ — So What Can Be Done About January 26?

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As the Australia Day (or more accurately, Invasion Day) public holiday continues to take place on January 26, so does the debate about it being held on the anniversary of the British colonising Australia back in 1788.
But in recent years, the discourse has shifted amongst many communities. What was initially a conversation pushing for a change of date, has evolved into discussions about abolishing the date altogether, or renaming it to acknowledge the impacts of colonisation on First Nations people.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International Australia spearheaded a 'Change the Date' campaign until 2018, which involved a petition proposing to move the date of Australia Day to a more 'appropriate date' that isn't associated with the violence of colonialism. While many people continue to advocate for the date of Australia Day to be changed, Amnesty's stance since 2018 has been that a mere date change won't address more systemic issues impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
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"Amnesty International Australia encourages all Australians to use January 26 as a day to reflect on the effects of colonisation on First Nations People," an Amnesty International Australia spokesperson told Refinery29 Australia.
"Effects are still being experienced to this very day in terms of institutional racism, poverty, health and gross overrepresentation in Australia’s prisons, removal of children and deaths in custody.
"Changing the date doesn’t hold governments accountable, doesn’t acknowledge the pain of colonisation, and doesn’t hold us accountable as an organisation, or make us confront our part in the ongoing violence of colonisation."
The organisation argues that there is never an appropriate date or time of the year to celebrate the trauma and ongoing impacts of colonisation that harm First Nations people, and instead, "we must listen first, and find a way to heal and move forward together as allies in solidarity".
"Changing the date to a presumably less problematic one doesn’t take away the pain — it just moves it on to the next day," says Maggie Munn, Amnesty International Australia Indigenous Rights Campaigner. "This country’s relationship with First Nations People is steeped in pain, and when we march and protest and rally, we’re demanding accountability, acknowledgement and action."
Professor Megan Davis, a co-chair of the Uluru Dialogue, has also argued that changing the date of Australia Day won't have a tangible impact on the lives of Indigenous people.
"My greatest reservation about the 'change the date' movements is that, in the absence of any structural reform, you’re changing the date but you’re not changing the structural powerlessness," the Cobble Cobble woman told The Sydney Morning Herald.
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Davis believes the upcoming referendum that asks Australians whether they vote for or against an Indigenous Voice to Parliament — a permanent body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, advising government on Indigenous policy — is more impactful.
"Supporting 'change the date' is fine, but really supporting the referendum and the Voice to Parliament is something that’s actually going to make a difference on the ground. It’s a tactile reform. So if changing the date comes after that, that makes a lot of sense, but to change the date without any substantive reform, it’s a symbolic move," says Davis.
The 'Abolish Australia Day' campaign advocates that changing the date won't achieve social justice for Indigenous people — and that the 'Change the Date' campaign only perpetuates further Australian nationalism, merely moving the celebration of colonisation to another date.
Amid debates over the years about changing the date, some First Nations People have thrown their support behind the 'Rename and Reframe the Date' movement, whereby Australia Day is called 'Invasion Day', 'Survival Day' or 'A Day of Mourning'. The purpose behind this is to acknowledge the ongoing pain of colonisation on First Nations people, and as Clothing The Gaps phrases it, allows communities to "reclaim and decolonise the way we spend this national public holiday".
While there are different views about January 26 within First Nations communities, Amnesty says it stands "with individuals who want to highlight the pain and suffering by the celebration of this date".
Whether it's attending a local rally, supporting Indigenous friends, colleagues or First Nations-led businesses, there's an opportunity to develop our understanding of Australia's history and how we can stand in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
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