Thousands rally for ‘Invasion Day’ protests on Australia Day holiday

 (via REUTERS)

Thousands of Australians have protested in support of indigenous people who oppose the country’s national day of celebrations, with many describing Australia Day as Invasion Day.

On January 26 235 years ago the first British fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour, marking the beginning of British colonisation in the nation. Australia’s indigenous people have occupied the land for at least 65,000 years.

While Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said it was a “difficult day” for indigenous peoples, there were no plans to change the holiday’s date.

But the government joined several large corporations in allowing staff the choice of taking the holiday off or working on Thursday and taking another day off instead, in recognition of growing public unease at celebrating the 1788 hoisting of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove.

There are growing public calls to change the date of Australia Day, which is known to many indigenous people as Invasion Day and Survival Day, because of the disastrous impacts on First Nations people of British colonists taking their land without a treaty.

In Sydney, the capital of New South Wales - Australia’s most populous state - social media showed a large crowd gathered at an “Invasion Day” rally in the central business district, where some people carried Aboriginal flags.

Similar protests took place in other Australian state capitals, including in Adelaide where around 2,000 people attended.

Speaking at a flag-raising and citizenship ceremony in Australia’s capital, Canberra, Mr Albanese said: “Let us all recognise the unique privilege that we have to share this continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture.”

An annual poll by market research company Roy Morgan released this week showed nearly two-thirds of Australians say January 26 should be considered “Australia Day”, largely unchanged from a year ago. The rest believe it should be “Invasion Day”.

Australia’s largest telecoms company, Telstra Corp Ltd, this year gave its staff the option to work on January 26 and take another day off instead.

“For many First Nations peoples, Australia Day ... marks a turning point that saw lives lost, culture devalued, and connections between people and places destroyed,” Telstra chief executive officer Vicki Brady wrote on LinkedIn.

The focus on Australia’s colonial history ignited debate on Thursday about a referendum due late this year that would create an indigenous body known as the Voice to address Parliament on indigenous issues.

The referendum, expected to be held between August and November, would enshrine the Voice in the constitution Mr Albanese committed to the referendum on the day his Labour Party government was elected in May last year.

Mr Albanese said he wanted Indigenous people recognized as Australia’s original inhabitants in the constitution, which has existed since 1901, before next year’s Australia Day.

“If not now, when will this change occur? And if not the people of Australia this year, who will make this change which will improve our country, improve our national unity?” Albanese told reporters on Thursday.

Noel Pearson, an indigenous leader and longtime advocate of constitutional change, said the Voice would be a move toward a “settlement between the natives and those who took over the continent and established modern Australia.”

But reactions to the Voice are mixed, including among indigenous leaders.

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, an indigenous senator for the conservative Nationals party, opposes the Voice.

Her party supports her view that the Voice would divide Australia along racial lines. Lidia Thorpe, an Indigenous senator for the progressive Greens party, on Wednesday threatened to oppose the Voice unless the referendum question includes acknowledgement that traditional owners never gave up their land.

Indigenous Australians account for 3.2 per cent of the population and are the nation’s most disadvantaged ethnic group.

They were not allowed to vote at federal elections until 1962, and Australian courts did not acknowledge until 1992 that their ancestors had legally owned the land when the British arrived.