Big Issues

This Year, Invasion Day Feels Different

australia day invasion day January 26

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If I think honestly about it, I can’t think of many Aboriginal people — even the most apathetic of those in our community — who don’t find January exhausting 

For weeks every year, we see a back-and-forth about what January 26th means play out, where the stubbornly jingoistic lock horns with those who are often well-meaning in their calls to “change the date”, but completely miss the point of why Indigenous communities protest every year.  

This year though, it feels different. For starters, as a community, we will be congregating on Invasion Day for the first time since the Referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament gave Australians — many of whom had utterly no understanding of what the constitution is, or what was (or rather, wasn’t) on the table for Indigenous people — a licence to dissect our humanity and worth as a people. Many are still reeling from the hurt and harm this caused in our communities. 

In addition, a mere week before the vote, Hamas militants staged an attack on a music festival and towns near Gaza and so began the bombardment of Gaza by Israel — now past its hundredth day. Many Indigenous activists therefore found their activism immediately switch to solidarity action mode following the referendum, and it has remained there since. 

This is to say nothing of the annual Australian Lamb ad and its inevitable corniness. Or the endless media pieces about whether Australia should “Change the Date” on which it celebrates its nationhood when not a single Invasion Day rally is actually calling for that. We have more pressing issues to highlight on Invasion Day — and a history of protesting on the 26/1 that goes back to 1938 

The referendum fallout, and the post-referendum call for solidarity with Palestine from the Indigenous community has been an interesting development to follow. It didn’t escape me, for example, that the Indigenous community members who have been most active in the pro-Palestine actions have been both the Blak sovereignty movement who advocated for a ‘No’ vote based on how limited and insulting the Voice proposal was, and those who advocated for a pragmatic ‘Yes’ , motivated by continued pushes for the truth-telling and treaty elements of the Uluru Statement.  

That was why, when I read an opinion piece in The Australian last week detailing how Indigenous solidarity for Palestine was allegedly threatening Jewish solidarity on Invasion Day and, more broadly, Indigenous rights movements in general, I had to wonder what planet those making these claims were on. I did note that nearly all commentators mentioned were active figureheads of the uncritical ‘Yes’ case for the referendum. To label Indigenous activists as mere “radicals” if we express solidarity with a community whose members are currently being killed by the 10s of thousands shows nothing except that these critics’ support is based almost entirely on the low aspiration of “reconciliation” and has nothing to do with solidarity for a more humane society. 

The claim, for example, by Sean Gordon that he had noticed Jewish solidarity during the referendum (because apparently, the referendum was the be-all of the Indigenous rights agenda) but not Palestinian solidarity was simply absurd. As a long-time participant, and some-time co-organiser of the Invasion Day protest, I state plainly that every year, without fail, the march attracts strong, active and passionate Jewish and Muslim (including Palestinian) blocs. Not only is it categorically untrue that there has not been Palestinian solidarity for Indigenous movements, but I have almost no fear that this year’s Invasion Day will lose a vast amount of Jewish support based purely on the fact that the same people who populate the Jewish bloc have been out every Sunday calling for Palestinian liberation. Have any of those figureheads in The Australian claiming we’re risking Jewish support ever actually joined in the blocs on Invasion Day? 

To change tack, Australia Day wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t some moral panic being drummed up by near-sighted patriots, and the politicians who rely on their votes. Rather than councils deciding not to run citizenship ceremonies this year though, the flavour for 2024 is major retailers such as Woolworths, Big W, and others deciding to no longer stock “Australia Day merchandise”. People, including Peter Dutton, seem to be utterly furious that a massive corporation might choose to no longer stock a line of goods because it’s no longer profitable. Wait until they hear how capitalism works, hey? 

I have, of course, simplified things above. In Melbourne last year, the annual Australia Day Parade was quietly cancelled with almost no outcry. This decision was made both because the City of Melbourne decided more reflective, inclusive and family-focused events made sense on a day that is painful for many Indigenous people — and also because the parade numbers had been dwindling for ages, while the Invasion Day protest drew tens of thousands participants. When a community makes it so plain how they wish to mark this particular day on a calendar, who are governmental bodies to ignore this? 

Perhaps things are changing, community perspectives are shifting, and a more informed younger community has a different vision for how they wish this country to move forward? Perhaps it’s temporary, and people are acting to highlight their shock at both how the referendum played out, and a humanitarian crisis halfway across the world? Who can truly know?  

I have no doubt that those who stubbornly don their flag capes and burn their lamb on a BBQ each year will continue to do exactly that. For the rest of us though, Invasion Day provides a wonderful opportunity for reflection, anti-racism, community-building and hope for a more cohesive future. Surely achieving this, rather than wallpapering over the hurts of others, is something most Australians would actually be proud to celebrate? 

Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman, a writer, a social commentator and a community activist, living in Melbourne.

Image: Getty