Right in the middle of Australia’s steaming hot summer is Australia Day, the country’s national day held annually on 26 January. The day marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, when British ships arrived in Port Jackson, New South Wales, and raised the Union Jack to mark the official declaration of British sovereignty.
Australia Day is a public holiday across the country, but as it falls on a Saturday in 2019, the following Monday (28 January) will be taken as a public holiday.
There are plenty of Australia Day celebrations to partake in across the country. However, it’s important to understand the history of Australia Day and the context in which the public holiday sits, so you can make a decision on whether to participate.
Australia Day past and present
Australia Day has become a matter of contention in Australia due to its history and relation to Indigenous communities.
For some, the Australia Day public holiday has become synonymous with backyard barbecues and a cool body of water (be it the ocean or even a little inflatable pool). It’s also the day thousands of people officially become Australian citizens at citizenship ceremonies across the country. Overall, though, it is regarded as a day to acknowledge the country’s history, celebrate contemporary Australia, and reflect on what it means to be Australian.
For Indigenous Australians, who had occupied the land for over 50,000 years prior to the arrival of the British, Australia Day is a day of mourning (many non-Indigenous Australians feel the same way, and you may hear the term “Invasion Day” being used instead).
The arrival of the First Fleet began the colonisation of the country, which brought massacres, oppression of Indigenous communities, theft of land and, more recently, the Stolen Generation of the early to mid-20th century, where Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families as a result of government policies. As such, there have been calls for Australia Day to be moved to a date that unites all of its people instead of continuing to cause a divide.
Australia Day Events
At present, the date remains the same, and celebrations, protests, ceremonies and remembrance will take place across the nation on or around 26 January.
Set an early alarm and head straight to beautiful (and probably very busy) Sydney Harbour on the morning of 26 January (extra public transport services will be running the whole day to keep you moving). Along the waterfront at Barangaroo Reserve, the day begins with the WugulOra Morning Ceremony – a traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony and dance – followed by a performance of the national anthem and the raising of both the Aboriginal and Australian flags on the top of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Afterwards, grab a picnic blanket and settle on the foreshore to enjoy Ferrython, where Sydney’s old-school ferries race across the Harbour.
Following the Official Flag Raising Ceremony, Swanston Street in Melbourne’s CBD will be packed with people for the Australia Day Parade – a bright, colourful and loud celebration of the city’s diverse community and cultures. In the afternoon, head to the Government House Open Day, with live performances, displays, activities and food stalls spread throughout the grounds. For a more traditional take on Australia Day, check out the 21 Gun Salute at midday at the Shrine of Remembrance.
Across the Australia Day long weekend, Adelaide’s Elder Park (Tarntanya), plays host to the brand-new event Kumangka, Mukapainga, Tampinga (Together, Remember, Recognise). The project aims to honour the city’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and bridge the understanding and views of Australia Day. From 8.30pm every night between 24-28 January, the park will be illuminated with an art installation, lighting up the night with the faces of Aboriginal Ancestors and leaders.
After a morning of enjoying the beach (be generous with the sunscreen at this time of year!), head to South Bank for Australia Day on the Green, a free live music event along the river, which ends with the annual Australia Day fireworks. This year, the show also features pyrotechnic jet ski performers, just to take things up a notch.
Following an early start of various ceremonies (Morning Ceremony! Flag Raising Ceremony! Citizenship Ceremony!), stick around for the Great Aussie Breakfast, where you can indulge in a big barbecue breakfast in Sir James Mitchell Park. Afterwards, why not grab some friends and get involved in the 5K Foam Fest? It’s a massive obstacle course/fun run/soapy experience that will test your physical limits. Whether you run or walk the course, you’ll get the chance to slip down the world’s largest inflatable waterslide.
Avoid the summer heat and enjoy the day at the National Museum of Australia’s Australia Day festival. Following a Welcome to Country, the museum is offering Indigenous weaving workshops, tours of the First Australians gallery, and a new Bush Mechanics exhibition. As the day draws to a close, you can enjoy fireworks on Acton Peninsula, complete with music and an Australia Day barbecue.
For a fast-paced start to Australia Day, sign up to OZ RUN – the Northern Territory’s largest running event, where you can pick either a 3 or 5km walk/run. There’s a Zumba warm-up to get your blood pumping before the run and music playing throughout the course, followed by a free sausage sizzle once you cross the finish line.
Hit the seaside during Hobart’s A Day on the Beach at Kingston Beach. The event features a weird and wonderful assortment of activities, including a sand sculpture competition, Gaelic football, balloon twisting and an ‘inflatable race’. Join in, or just set up a spot on the beach and enjoy watching the fun.
If you’d rather give 26 January a miss, there are a number of events occurring around this date that you can celebrate instead.
The Triple J Hottest 100, an annual countdown of the year’s 100 best songs as voted by the public, will be broadcast nationwide on the Triple J radio station and online on 27 January. In recent years, the countdown was synonymous with Australia Day, but following a public survey in 2018, Triple J changed the date to remove the Hottest 100 from the wider Australia Day debate. The Triple J website offers a free, downloadable Party Pack, with games and decorations to help you become the ultimate Hottest 100 host.
Anyone located in Perth should head to One Day in Fremantle, a free event at the Esplanade Reserve on 27 January. If you’re in Adelaide, grab your glow sticks and head to the Electric Gardens festival at Thebarton Theatre.
Later in the year is National Reconciliation Week, a time for people to learn about Australia’s shared histories and culture, while building relationships, respect and trust between Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. Important events will be held across the country, so keep an eye out on the Reconciliation Australia website for information on how to get involved.