By Andrew Martin, Melbourne
Aboriginal people have suffered genocidal oppression and brutality since British colonisation. That is why the 26 January public holiday, “Australia Day”, is marked as Invasion Day or Survival Day by First Nations peoples.
It was not until 1935 that all Australian states and territories marked January 26 as “Australia Day”. In 1994, the Paul Keating Labor Government made it a national holiday. Invasion Day marks the arrival of the first fleet of eleven ships captained by Arthur Phillip in Sydney Cove.
The first January 26 protests occurred in 1938, with Aboriginal people calling it a “Day of Mourning”. “Aborigines and people of Aboriginal blood” were invited to attend a protest at Australia Hall on Elizabeth Street in Sydney.
Over the last ten or more years, as many people in Australia come to terms with its colonial past, there has been a major shift in attitudes towards “Australia Day” with widespread sentiment to change the date. Many others wish to see it abolished entirely.
In response, the national holiday is increasingly being sanitised by state and local governments, with Aboriginal culture appropriated to celebrate it. For instance, in Sydney this year, Kamilaroi artist Rhonda Sampson’s Diyen Warrane artwork was projected onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House, and there are many indigenous performances to mark the day. There are also a growing number of “Survival Day” festivals, such as the Yabun festival in Redfern, Sydney, which are increasing in popularity.
26 January is increasingly presented as a day to celebrate the multicultural aspects of Australia, but there is no doubt these official presentations are experiencing an identity crisis and starting to wane in popularity. This year, the Victorian state government cancelled the official Australia Day Parade that had been scheduled for Melbourne’s CBD. These Melbourne parades have been dwarfed for the last several years by the massive Invasion Day protests that take over the city streets.
In Sydney, tens of thousands assembled at Belmore Park and marched to Victoria Park. In Melbourne, the protest marched from the Victorian parliament to Flinders Street Station. Large gatherings were also held in most major cities of Australia, but also in regional centres and cities such as Port Macquarie, Devonport, Newcastle and Griffith.
The demands and themes were similar throughout all the protests. The most militant and outspoken sections of the indigenous movement have condemned the federal government’s proposal for a Voice to Parliament.
The Voice to Parliament plan originates in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a 2017 petition to change the constitution of Australia to recognise First Nations peoples. The statement was released after the four-day First Nations National Constitutional Convention. It was rejected by the then Liberal-National government as being too radical.
The Labor government of Anthony Albanese has pledged to recognise the statement and to implement its demand to establish an advisory body to parliament.
Some of the most prominent indigenous leaders argue the government needs to sign a treaty recognising indigenous sovereignty and start a truth telling process before any vote on the Voice (truth and treaty before voice). At the Melbourne protest, (which is the action this writer attended), speakers expressed open defiance towards the police. One speaker raised the need for a revolution and for Australia to be re-founded as a republic.
There is a growing number of young activists that see themselves as part of a Black resistance. In Sydney, Ian Brown told the ABC that “the Voice does not embody the needs of the community. We’re still fighting for land rights, still asking for the same things we were 50 years ago.”
Similar anger was expressed at the Melbourne rally. Speakers at the rally urged people to think carefully about what they were voting for. These demands were raised at the rally:
● Land back and land rights – stop selling land promised to us
● End Aboriginal deaths in custody and implement all the recommendations of the Royal
Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the coronial inquests
● Climate justice
● End the theft of Black children and implement the recommendations of the Bringing
Them Home report
● Abolish police and prisons
Below are excerpts from three important speakers:
Gary Foley – Professor of History at Victoria University and veteran activist:
“From the 1960’s on we have argued for self-determination, political and economic independence – which is just a fancy way of saying Aboriginal sovereignty. For the next 50 years that is what we were fighting for. The black power movement of the 1970’s was built around the same principles.
Here we are 50 years down the track and what are we being offered?
And so, the Australian parliament today is not interested in listening to the voices of Aboriginal people, then why should we expect that yet another advisory body – let me tell you something – from 1972 all the way through to John Howard, governments have all set up their own versions of advisory bodies.
I was there in 1967. I remember the elders telling us then that if we got a Yes vote it would change things forever for Aboriginal people. We got the biggest Yes vote in Australian history and nothing changed.
We’ve had 40 years of history wars and culture wars, Sky after dark, Paulin Hanson. You reckon this country ain’t more polarized now than it’s never been? They’re the reasons why this referendum won’t get up. And if it don’t get up where does that leave us?
It will not address the deep underlying issues that still pervade Australian society.”
Robert Thorpe – activist and presenter of 3CR’s Bunjil’s Fire, The Black Block & Blak n Deadly radio shows:
“This is a great opportunity now to step into a sovereign independent republic to write our own constitution for the people by the people. What we have is essentially a colonial constitution.
The white Australia policy was very much part of the constitution – the federal constitution was created right up the road here. To persist with it is continuing evidence of their intent to destroy our people.
We got a long way to go folks. The colonists have had 250 years to protect our rights. There’s nothing to show for it. There is too much corporate power that takes everything off us.
But I reckon we’re ready to step up. This is enough.
There’s enough people here to take it one step further and do a revolution. People power. That’s all we’ve ever had.
They want a token voice in their constitution. It’s disgusting, insulting and offensive. Nothing can be compared to it.
We’ve got to step up here. I don’t want to be validating this racist constitution in anyway shape or form. It’s a de-facto way of getting us to be a part of this ratshit system.
We’ve got a voice. I’ve got one now in the local community where it’s very important, more important to have a voice on the ground. We are 600 independent sovereign nations here.
That’s the law of the land – not to cede sovereignty. I want to acknowledge all those ancestors and all those warriors who died – all this around you was built at the cost of our blood.
We need land and ceremony before any more business goes down. We don’t need more dodgy committees that have always betrayed us. We’re always going to be here until we get justice so why can’t we make it today and not just one day of the year, but every day.
Till we got justice in our own country we’ll keep fighting.”
Lidia Thorpe – Greens Senator for Victoria since 2020:
“This is a war – a war that was declared on our people over 200 years ago. That war has never ever ended in this country against my people. They are still killing us.
What do we have to celebrate in this country?
Do we want to become advisors now? Do we want to become an advisory body to a colonial system? We deserve better than that.
We have had enough. Our mother is dying. The land we’re on is dying. When we die, our mother dies, and we see what white people have done to this country in the short time they have been here.
They have destroyed our water. They have destroyed our land. They have destroyed our families. They have destroyed our sacred sites.
They have taken our children and said sorry. Sorry means you don’t do it again!
So, what are they doing now?
They want to put the colonial constitution over the top of the oldest constitution on the planet – our constitution, which comes from the soil and the blood of our people.
We need peace. We need peace.
We’re sick of dying. We’re sick of seeing our children taken. We’re sick of seeing our men being demonized.
We’re sick of the racism in this country from the federal parliament right through to the streets that we walk down.
We have to rid racism from this country.
We have to bring everyone together through a sovereign treaty.
I sit in that parliament every day, and they say they are sovereign. You don’t go to someone else’s country and say you are sovereign.
We are sovereign, and this is our land!
And we deserve better than an advisory body. We have an opportunity to have a treaty. They could put ten independent black seats in the senate today. We want real power.
We won’t settle for anything less than this.”
Below are photos by Pipin Jamson of the Melbourne protest