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Change the date? Cape York leaders have their say on Australia Day

Published on 24th January 2018

A groundswell of support to shift Australia Day away from January 26 hasn’t made its way to Cape York just yet.

Leaders across the region said they saw no real reason to change it.

The Cape York News spoke to half a dozen elected leaders in the lead-up to Australia Day and none wanted to change the date.

Lockhart River mayor Wayne Butcher said it best.

“It’s a city issue,” he claimed.

“We don’t care that much in the bush. We’re just happy to have the day off.”

Cr Butcher said although he could see the argument made by those protesting the January 26 date, people in regional and remote areas had other things on their minds.

“We don’t even have any Australia Day celebrations in Lockhart.”

There will be an Australia Day event in Aurukun and local mayor Dereck Walpo said the date should remain on January 26.

“We love Australia and we want to celebrate Australia Day like everyone else,” he said.

“We will do an awards ceremony to acknowledge three local people and they should be proud.”

Cook Shire mayor Peter Scott said Australia Day was not about celebrating the past.

“Personally I think Australia Day is Australia Day and shouldn’t be confused with anything else,” he said.

“I can understand (the push to change the date), but history is full of dates of battles and invasions and terrible things happening.

“To me, once you start going down that track it’s going to get awfully difficult to move forward.

“It’s a great opportunity to celebrate our cultural diversity.”

Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch said although January 26 was not the perfect date to hold Australia Day celebrations, the day itself was not about celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet.

“It’s not to celebrate colonisation or abuse of Indigenous rights – it is about celebrating the multicultural country we have developed,” he said on Tuesday.

“This debate it is driven primarily by non-Indigenous people in metropolitan areas that never been to remote communities.”

The federal MP said he liked the fact Cape York’s mayors were not pushing the subject.

“I congratulate them for taking on that pragmatic position,” he said.

“There have been all sorts of atrocities in the past – we are talking about a totally different era.

“There was a different mindset in history and what happened in Australia is something that happened around the world.

“In 2008 Kevin Rudd stood up and apologised on behalf of all Australians to the Indigenous peoples for past wrongs.

“That was something I strongly supported.

“How many times do you have to apologise? We have to start dwelling on the many, many positives.

“No one could argue there’s not a genuine effort to improve things in Australia for Indigenous people.”

Mr Entsch said Australia had at least 10 days or weeks where we celebrated Indigenous Australians

“We now have National Apology Day, Close the Gap Day, Harmony Day, National Sorry Day, Mabo Day, Reconciliation Week, NAIDOC Week, National Aboriginal Children’s Day, International Day of World’s Indigenous People and Indigenous Literacy Day.”

Northern Peninsula Area Regional Council mayor Eddie Newman said Friday would be a day of celebration.

“It’s a day that unites the community as we celebrate a multi-cultural society as well as recognising history,” he said.

“Whilst there is some debate around January 26, we as a community within the NPA recognise this event as a way to come together and heal the events of the past.

“In today’s modern society, Australians are not only classed as Indigenous or European, but also as African, Pacific Islander, Chinese and others.

“Australia is a home for all and, for many, a land of opportunity.”

Opposition to Australia Day, and the push to change the date to one that attempts to reconcile with the dispossession and death of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, is not a new invention. It is almost as old as the day itself.

The anniversary of the landing of the first fleet, on January 26, 1788, was first marked as a public holiday in 1818.

In 1888, the New South Wales Premier at the time, Henry Parkes, was asked which activities would be included for Aboriginal people in the celebrations marking a centenary of British colonisation of Australia.

He replied: “And remind them that we have robbed them?”

Fifty years later, in 1938, while Sydney conducted a week-long celebration for the 150th anniversary of the planting of the British flag in Sydney Cove, about 100 Aboriginal people gathered in Sydney for a national day of mourning.

It was the first formal January 26 protest by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and took place eight years before Australia Day was formally recognised as Australia Day in all states and territories.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the Australia Day public holiday was consistently held on January 26 each year.

Last year, thousands marched in protests across the country.

A Guardian Essential poll in September found that 26 per cent of Australians supported changing the date, while 54 per cent opposed changing it.