India will mark its 72nd Republic Day this year on January 26. Meanwhile, a few oceans away, Australia will also mark a day of national significance, albeit an intensely debated one.
Australia Day is at its core a contentious holiday – one that has polarised Australians since before January 26 became the decided day for these celebrations. Protests are a characteristic part of the day in Australia and this time, sporting bodies like Cricket Australia have taken a stand to not validate origins of the public holiday and drop the name from match promotions.
Here’s a quick look at the history behind this holiday and why it is caught in the midst of a heated socio-political debate.
Australia Day is the official national day of Australia and is celebrated annually on January 26 to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet to Sydney in 1788. Indigenous Australians refer to the day as ‘Invasion Day’ and there is growing support to change the date to one which can be celebrated by all Australians. – Getty Images
This is a public holiday with a colonial past. On 26 January 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of 11 British ships, arrived at Sydney Cove, thereby marking the birth of a new British colony.
Its consistent observance on January 26 is a recent development, dating back to 1994. (More details on the evolution of the holiday here)
Who is protesting this day and why?
The formation of the Australian colony also meant invasion of indigenous lands and people and this aspect of the day is what the protests against this holiday being marked on January 26 are based on.
Invasion day, survival day, day of mourning/sorrow – there are several phrases coined to force an acknowledgement of the historical experiences of Aboriginal and indigenous communities during and post colonisation. Protests have also seen calls against racial injustice and inequalities.
What do the protesters want?
Much of the criticism Australia Day has invited is not its ideal intention to be a national holiday rather the day it has been designated for the purpose. A hashtag – #ChangeTheDate – comes back in circulation around this time every year calling for an alternative day to commemorate the holiday – one that does not hurt the sentiments of the indigenous communities in Australia.
Opinion polls held in the country suggest that there is a greater demand among younger sections of the population to change the date of the holiday pointing to a generational division of opinion on its historical significance. According to the BBC, alternate dates suggested over the years include May 27 (marking the day in 1967 when indigenous people were allowed constitutional rights), January 1 (when the Australian Constitution came into effect in 1901) or even 8 May – a play on the word ‘mate’.
However, the debate over the date is a small part of a larger discussion on Australia’s relationship with its colonial past and acknowledgement of the historical hardships of its indigenous communities and culture.
Where does Cricket Australia come into the picture?
Cricket Australia has decided to drop the term ‘Australia Day’ in promotions for Big Bash League games scheduled on the public holiday. The fixtures are now to be promoted as the January 26 games.
Additionally, three Big Bash clubs – The Sydney Thunder, Perth Scorchers and Melbourne Renegades – will wear indigenous jerseys, while the Melbourne franchises have decided to continue using ‘Australia Day’ in their branding.
Cricket Australia’s decision comes as an attempt to normalise conversations over the date’s controversial history. – Getty Images
Cricket Australia’s decision comes as an attempt to normalise conversations over the date’s controversial history. A barefoot circle, Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony will also precede the fixtures for the day, in accordance to recommendations by the sport’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cricket Advisory Committee (NATSICAC).
This move drew criticism from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison who asked Cricket Australia to ‘focus on the cricket.’
“I think a bit more focus on cricket, and a bit less focus on politics would be my message to Cricket Australia,” he told Australian radio station 4RO.
Among the voices backing the CA’s decision is NATSICAC co-chair and former Australia player Mel Jones.
“It’s recognition that it’s a really hurtful day for many,” Jones said to ABC. “We’ve got five Indigenous players playing those games and a lot of Indigenous fans that come to the cricket, we just want to make this space as safe and inclusive as possible.”
“We don’t get a choice whether to be a role model in sports these days, but you do get the choice to be a good one or a bad one,” she added.
The Prime Minister explained what he thought this day needs to mean for the Australian community.
“Australia Day is all about acknowledging how far we’ve come,” he said. “When those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, all those years ago, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either. What that day, to this, demonstrates is how far we’ve come as a country and I think that’s why it’s important to mark it in that way.”
His comments on the people who were part of the British fleet have also been met with criticism, from cricketers Dan Christian and Usman Khwaja to Olympian Cathy Freeman among others.
@ScottMorrisonMP read the room Mr Prime Minister. @CricketAus are leading the way because your government won’t. There’ll be millions of kids watching our @BBL games on the 26th January, and they’ll see us taking a knee against racism, and promoting inclusion for all. Take note.
— Dan Christian (@danchristian54) January 22, 2021
I think for ScoMo to say to CA “a bit more focus on cricket and a little less focus on politics” is pretty petty. CA could say the same thing vice versa but what’s that going to solve. Someone needs to take action to figure out what works for us as a nation. Well said mate https://t.co/KjwK5VY1mE
— Usman Khawaja (@Uz_Khawaja) January 22, 2021
You can’t compare the experiences of those 12 ships that first arrived to
this country to what their arrival meant for all generations of Australia’s First Nations people!
— Cathy Freeman (@CathyFreeman) January 22, 2021
Jason Gillespie, the only Australian male Indigenous cricketer to play for the national Test team, also backed his friends and colleagues at Cricket Australia saying, “I’m proud that CA is leading the way regarding this important conversation.”
Women’s national cricketer Megan Schutt was also quick to condemn PM Morrison’s comments.
My word, this is embarrassing… as well as insensitive and divisive maybe you should focus more on politics and less on cricket? https://t.co/weoHX5D0kV
— Megan Schutt (@megan_schutt) January 21, 2021
Courting controversy – Margaret Court returns to public attention
Come the Australian Open, Margaret Court finds her way back into conversation, not as much for her impressive achievements in the sport but for her controversial remarks about the LGBTQIA+ community.
Australia media is reporting that controversial former tennis champion Margaret Court will receive the country’s top award in the Australia Day honours list, and the apparent decision is already being criticised.
The 78-year-old’s appointment as Companion of the Order of Australia was due to be revealed late on Monday, but it was leaked on social media. The award is to recognise Court’s “eminent service to tennis” as winner of a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles and a mentor for young athletes. But Court’s tennis achievements have more recently been overshadowed by her views on homosexuality, conversion therapy, same-sex marriage and transgender people.
Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews said he did not support Court receiving the honour.
“I don’t believe that she has views that accord with the vast majority of people across our nation that see people, particularly from the LGBTQ community, as equal and deserving of dignity, respect and safety,” he said.
“Tennis is full of lesbians. Even when I was playing there were only a couple there but those couple that led took young ones into parties,” Court said. “And what you get at the top is often what you’ll get right through that sport,” Court said to Vision Christian Radio in 2017.
Court, a Pentecostal minister who runs the Victory Life Centre church in Perth, Western Australia, said she won’t change her opinions. “All my life I’ve had those views and I was just saying what the Bible says,” she said.
“Because we are living in a season … even that LGBT and the schools – it’s of the devil, it’s not of God,” she said to her congregation in 2019.
“I should always be able to say my views biblically, being a pastor and helping people with marriages and family. And I’ll never change those views,” she added.
Last year, in 2020, Court was honoured for the 50th anniversary of completing a calendar year Grand Slam — winning all four major tournaments in 1970. But former tennis stars including Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe and current player Andy Murray have all led calls for Court’s name to be removed from Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne Park because of her views.
McEnroe on Court in 2020: “Serena, do me a favour, get two more Grand Slams this year and get to 25 so we can leave Margaret and her offensive views in the past, where they both belong.”
(With inputs from AP)