Australia Day

Australia Day, celebrated annually on 26 January, is the official national day of Australia, commemorating the establishment of the first British settlement on the continent of Australia. The date is that of the foundation of a British penal colony at Sydney Cove on Port Jackson, New South Wales in 1788, by Captain Arthur Phillip, in his capacity as the first Governor of New South Wales. Australia Day is an official public holiday in all states and territories of Australia, and has also been known as Anniversary Day and Foundation Day.

On the eve of Australia Day each year, the Prime Minister announces the winner of the Australian of the Year award, presented to an Australian citizen who has shown a "significant contribution to the Australian community and nation", and is an "inspirational role model for the Australian community". Subcategories of the award include "Young" and "Senior Australian of the Year", and an award for "Australia's Local Hero".

Records of the celebration of Australia Day date back to 1808, and in 1818, Governor Lachlan Macquarie held the first official celebration of Australia Day. In 2004, an estimated 7.5 million people attended Australia Day celebrations and functions across the country.


On 13 May 1787, a fleet of 11 ships, which came to be known as the First Fleet, was sent by the British Admiralty from England to Australia, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay on the coast of New South Wales, which had been explored by Captain James Cook in 1770. The settlement was seen as necessary because of the loss of the colonies in North America. Captain Phillip found Botany Bay unsuitable and with two ships proceeded a short distance northwards to Port Jackson, which he declared "the finest harbour in the world". The site decided upon for the first settlement was at a location where there was a potable stream of water, and some level land, unlike much of the steep and rugged foreshore. By 26 January 1788, the fleet was at anchor in Sydney Cove, the male convicts were unshipped and the flag was raised in the name of King George III. In 1808, the day was celebrated as the "First Landing" or "Foundation Day", as the colony had survived for twenty years, despite the initial hardships, deprivation and starvation suffered by the First Fleet settlers. The celebrations began at sundown on 25 January, and lasted into the night, the chief toast of the occasion being Major George Johnston, who had had the honour of being the first officer ashore from the First Fleet, having been carried from the landing boat on the back of convict James Ruse, the colony's first successful farmer. On the following day, 26 January 1808, George Johnston, despite suffering the ill-effects of a fall from his gig on the way home to Annandale, led the officers of the New South Wales Corps in arresting Governor William Bligh in what became known as the "Rum Rebellion".

On 26 January in 1818, the 30th anniversary, Governor Lachlan Macquarie had a 30-gun salute at Dawes Point and gave government workers a holiday - a tradition that was soon followed by banks and other public offices.

In 1888 all colonial capitals except Adelaide celebrated 'Anniversary Day' and by 1935 all states of Australia were celebrating 26 January as Australia Day (although it was still known as Anniversary Day in New South Wales).

The 1938 sesquicentenary (150th anniversary) of British settlement in Australia was widely celebrated. Preparations began in 1936 with the formation of a Celebrations Council. In that year, New South Wales was the only state to abandon the traditional long weekend, and the annual Anniversary Day public holiday was held on the actual anniversary day - Wednesday 26 January.

In 1946 the Commonwealth and state governments agreed to unify the celebrations on 26 January as 'Australia Day', although the public holiday was instead taken on the Monday closest to the actual anniversary.

Since 1994 all states and territories have celebrated Australia Day on 26 January. If Australia Day occurs on a weekend, however, a public holiday is observed on the following Monday.

Australia Day 1988

The celebration of 200 years since the arrival of the First Fleet was organised on a large scale, with many significant events taking part in all major cities, but particularly in Sydney. The events included street parties, concerts, including performances on the steps and forecourt of the Sydney Opera House and at many other public venues, art and literary competitions, historic re-enactments, and the opening of the Powerhouse Museum at its new location. A fleet of eleven sailing ships of similar size to those of the First Fleet anchored in Farm Cove, and there was a re-enactment of the arrival of the first European settlers.

One of the biggest aspects of the celebration was the invitation to other nations to take part in a yacht race, and a parade of sail. The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is an annual event, commencing in Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day, with competing yachts sailing down the coast to the southernmost state capital of Hobart in Tasmania. However, the 1987 Boxing Day start was cancelled, the race commencing in Hobart in mid January, and sailing north, rather than south, in order to finish in Sydney. The invitation attracted not only yachts but tall ships from all over the world, many of which assembled first at Fremantle, Western Australia. The ships included the "Juan Sebastian d'Elcano", from Spain, the "Eagle" from the United States, the "Gorch Foch" from Germany, the "Friendship" from Poland, the "Nipon Maru" from Japan, the "Varuna" from India, the United Kingdom's gift to Australia, the sail-traing vessel, "Young Endeavour", and many others. To the cheers of watchers on the bridge in Darling Harbour, on the evening of 21 January, the "Young Endeavour" was the first of her class to finish the Hobart to Sydney race. On the afternoon of Australia Day, there was a parade of vessels on Sydney Harbour, which included all the tall ships, Sydney's historic steamships, and thousands of smaller craft of every description.

The Aboriginal response

In January 1988, the indigenous people of Australia made a concerted effort to promote an awareness among other Australians of their presence, their needs, and their desire that there should be communication, reconciliation and co-operation over the matter of land rights. To this purpose, during January, they set up a highly-visible Tent Embassy at a shoreside location at a point called "Mrs Macquarie's Chair" adjacent to the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. The embassy, consisting of several large marquees and smaller tents, was manned by a group of Aboriginal people from Eveleigh Street, Redfern, and was organised with the co-operation of the local council's department of parks and gardens. It became a gathering place for Aboriginal people from all over Sydney. One of the aims of the embassy was to be seen by the many thousands of Sydneysiders who did not know, and rarely even saw, any Aboriginal people. Among the outspoken supporters of the Aboriginal people, and a visitor to the tent embassy, was the Anglican Dean of Sydney, Lance Shilton.

As part of the consolidation of the Aboriginal people, many people from remote parts of Australia, from the far north, and from the Central Desert, travelled to Sydney, where they were welcomed at the embassy, and accommodated by the Aboriginal community at La Perouse. There was a tremendous elation among the local community, many of whom felt detached from their roots, because the "initiated elders" had come among them. One of the elders whose presence was particularly anticipated was the land rights activist Vincent Lingiari, but unfortunately, he died en route to Sydney, on 21 January. His death was commemorated by the ringing of the bells at the Sydney church of St. Stephen's, Newtown.

A great gathering, with a variety of speakers, was organised in Hyde Park, Sydney, on the afternoon of Australia Day. The entire day passed peacefully, with only a few isolated incidents and very few arrests.


Australia Day is a national day and public holiday. For some years the holiday was held on the closest Monday, to provide a long weekend. The national celebrations now occur every year on 26 January. The public holiday occurs on 26 January if it is a weekday, otherwise it occurs on the following Monday.

The National Australia Day Council (NADC) is the coordinating body for the Australian of the Year Awards and Australia Day celebrations across the nation. The NADC heads a network of state and territory Australia Day affiliate organisations and local Australia Day committees.

Australia Day is marked by civic celebrations around the country, including the Order of Australia and Australian of the Year awards for outstanding achievement. Air Force aerial displays are held in some capital cities. In Sydney the ferry race and tall ships race has become tradition, along with a surfing race across the harbour.

Citizenship ceremonies are also held on Australia Day. The Australia Day Achievement Medallion is awarded to citizens based on excellence in both government and non-government organisations. Customarily, the Prime Minister will make an address to the nation.

Fireworks celebrations are held in many towns and cities around the country. The Perth Lotterywest Skyworks display is billed as the largest Australia Day celebration in the country, with more than a third of the city's population (around 500,000 estimated for the 2006 Skyworks) lining the river foreshore for the display.

The Australian music scene enjoys a significant event on Australia Day - the Triple J Hottest 100. The Sydney leg of the Big Day Out music festival has also traditionally occurred on Australia Day. In 2007 the event was held on 25 January due to the flag ban controversy at the event. There is also often a one day cricket match such as the 2006 Australia Day match in Adelaide. In Canberra the Australia Day Live Concert takes place where the Australian of the Year is announced.

Suggested changes to the date

Some have suggested making Anzac Day, 25 April, Australia's national day. However, many war veterans believe that Anzac Day is their day, and it is also a public holiday in New Zealand, Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tonga.

Some have suggested changing to 1 January, commemorating the date in 1901 when Australia's six colonies federated into one nation. However, 1 January is already a public holiday and is in the middle of the Christmas holiday season.

The date 9 May is also sometimes suggested, being not only the date on which the first Federal Parliament was opened in Melbourne in 1901, but also the date of the opening of the Provisional Parliament House in Canberra in 1927, and the date of the opening of the New Parliament House in 1988.

Many supporters of the continued use of Australia Day as Australia's national day point out that 26 January commemorates an actual historical event, similar to Anzac Day, Bastille Day in France, Canada Day in Canada, Independence Day in the United States, and Republic Day in India.

A recent advertising campaign for Australian Lamb, featuring Sam Kekovich, jocularly promoted the extension of Australia Day to Australia Week.

Criticism and alternative celebrations

To some Aboriginal Australians and sympathisers, the idea of celebrating the anniversary of the arrival of the British has been seen as incongruous with the adverse effects British settlement had on Australia's indigenous people. The sesquicentenary celebrations in 1938 were accompanied by an Aboriginal Day of Mourning. A large gathering of Aboriginal people in Sydney in 1988 led an "Invasion Day" commemoration marking the loss of indigenous culture. The anniversary is also known as "Survival Day" and marked by events such as the Survival Day concert first held in Sydney in 1992, celebrating the fact that the indigenous people and culture have not been completely wiped out. In response, official celebrations have tried to include indigenous people, holding ceremonies such as the Woggan-ma-gule ceremony, which was held in Sydney in 2006 and honoured the past and celebrated the present; it involved Indigenous Australians and the NSW Governor, Prof Marie Bashir.


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