Protesters want the date of the national holiday to be changed because it marks the beginning of the colonization of indigenous people by the British. The current administration opposes a date change.
Tens of thousands of Australians participated in protests across the country on Thursday demanding the date of Australia Day be changed out of respect for the country's indigenous people. The date of the national holiday, January 26, marks the anniversary of the arrival of the British First Fleet in Sydney in 1788 - and the start to centuries of subjugation of the continent's native people by the colonizers.
In Melbourne alone, tens of thousands of people marched the streets in red, black and yellow, the colors of the Aboriginal Flag. Several thousand each attended protests in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth. In Canberra, the national capital, hundreds staged a sit-in outside Parliament.
At the Canberra protest, Alan Thomas Coe said that the date should be moved because it conjured up a "bad memory" for many. "This is the beginning of all our troubles. We are a dysfunctional people because of the impact of white society, and we need people to acknowledge these facts," the Aboriginal man told the AAP news agency.
Aborigines have long faced discrimination in Australia. They were not fully recognized as citizens in their homeland until 1967 and are currently near the bottom across all economic and social indicators. They make up only 3 percent of the 23 million populace but 27 percent of the prison population.
"Since 1788 we've been fighting, and it's a national disgrace to have a holiday on Australia Day - a day which marked the beginning of genocide," said Dave Bell, one of the organizers of the Sydney demonstration.
Because of the treatment of indigenous Australians by the British, January 26 is often referred to as "Survival Day" or "Invasion Day" by activists. Under the Hashtags #ChangetheDate, #InvasionDay and #SurvivalDay, many Twitter users expressed solidarity with the protests.
The current Australian administration does not support a date change. On a local radio show, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said that the demands to change the date were "political correctness gone mad." He went on to say that the protesters were "just miserable, gutted people I wish could crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit."
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull struck a more reconciliatory tone. "Everyone is entitled to a point of view, but I think most Australians accept January 26 as Australia Day," Turnbull told reporters in Canberra. He also said that there were "many bigger, more profound issues like constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians to deal with than the date of Australia Day." A vote on whether to recognize Aborigines as Australia's first people in the constitution has been on hold for years.