Welcome to Dig Deeper, a content series allowing you to dive as deep as you like into topics that are underserved in the current media landscape, but need and deserve more coverage and attention.
Its purpose is to shed light on important community-based issues facing minority groups. To kick off, we’re talking about January 26, the national mood and importance of changing the date.
The number of people, organisations, and businesses boycotting Australia Day this year appear to have increased exponentially. The phrase ‘not the date to celebrate‘ appears to be hitting some kind of tipping point, with unprecedented shifts in the way many large operations are choosing to spend their time on Thursday.
This is maybe not all that surprising, given that polling indicates Australians are changing their minds on January 26th. Recent Guardian Essential polling found that 57% of people would either support changing the date or having another day to respect the occupation of First Nations people. Just 27% of people said that they would be specifically be celebrating Australia Day, with 50% saying they thought of it as just another day off.
However, other polling has found that around two-thirds of the country is in favour of keeping the date and the day, although that’s down from 80% at the start of the century. Typically, it’s the younger generations who want the date changed, suggesting a future where Australia Day is no longer recognised as January 26th.
In keeping with these changes, hundreds of thousands of workers have been granted the choice to swap their ‘Australia Day‘ leave for another date if they don’t want to have a holiday on January 26th.
The Liberal Party is up in arms about the call, which was made by the Federal Government, to give Australian public and private sector workers the option to choose when they want to take a day off.
Liberal senator Jane Hume has asked, “Why would Anthony Albanese and Labor deliberately undermine Australia’s national day by telling the Australian Public Service it doesn’t matter?”
It’s something of a strange reaction, given that the rule banning public sector workers from swapping their Australia Day holiday was only implemented after January 26th last year by the Morrison government. In effect, this year is no different from any other.
The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, said that the decision to work or not to work on January 26th was, as it always has been, “a matter between employers and their employees for discussion”.
“I understand that happens in the public service across a range of public holidays, in part due to the nature of the public service,” he told a press conference on Wednesday. “One of the things that happens is public servants work on Christmas Day. They work on all sorts of days when others are able to put their feet up.”
One thing that has changed however is the number of organisations who are ramping up their offerings of holiday swaps. At the start of the year, Wollongong University announced that it would give its staff the option to work on Australia Day, saying “let’s be clear about what we’re celebrating.”
They’re not the first, and they won’t be the last, to allow their workers to choose to not participate in celebrations on the day.
Who’s Boycotting Australia Day?
The question this year seems to be ‘who isn’t’?
The Australian Open, for starters, has cancelled its Australia day celebrations after Indigenous players spoke up against it.
Kmart has said that they won’t be selling any Australia Day merchandise this year in order to be “inclusive and respectful to all.”
And the Victorian government has quietly done away with its annual Australia Day parade in Melbourne, instead hosting a quieter, more reflective event.
In addition, there is a growing number of private, commercial organisations who, this year, are giving people the option to work, if they so choose.
The University of Wollongong joins the ranks of the telecoms giant Telstra, who instituted a similar personal-choice policy at the end of last year. This will be the first Australia Day that Telstra’s 29,000 employees can choose to work on the day or not after an internal vote on the decision saw staff decide in favour of the change. The head of Telstra herself,
The same is true of Woodside Energy, BHP, and consulting firm KPMG. The rest of the big four consulting giants, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PwC have done the same for years, as has the super fund Australian Ethical. Legal firm Herbert Smith Freehills has also implemented the policy.
Network 10 made headlines also at the end of last year after an internal email from company-owners Paramount ANZ told staff that “January 26” was “not a day of celebration.” All Paramount staff, including those at Network 10 and elsewhere, will be given the choice not to recognise the date.
“We recognise that January 26 evokes different emotions for our employees across the business, and we are receptive to employees who do not feel comfortable taking this day as a public holiday,” the email read.
In addition, you’ve also got Woolworths, who announced last Wednesday that their 160,000 staff will be able to do the same and get a day in lieu if they work January 26th.
“We think it’s up to each team member to mark the day as it suits them and our priority is creating a safe and supportive environment in our stores and sites,” a Woolworths spokesperson has said.
Further to this, more universities in the higher education sector are said to be in negotiations with unions to broker deals that will allow for similar changes. The flexibility, allowing people to express their dislike of the date chosen to celebrate Australia as one associated with the prelude to genocide, has been led by corporate Australia, with the government catching up over the past year.
Albanese was criticised as “cancelling Australia Day by stealth” when he allowed councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on dates other than January 26th in December last year. Again, this was a repeal of a Morrison-era policy that fixed the date.
While the Federal Government has stated that they have no plan to change the date of Australia Day, it appears that more companies are opting into the idea that this might not be the most respectful date to celebrate.
Why Organisations Are Choosing to Work on January 26th
January 26th, marking the day Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney Cove at the head of the First Fleet and planted the Union Jack in the soil, has increasingly been recognised as a poorly-chosen date for celebration. It forever ties the founding of this country to genocide and oppression of First Nations people.
Changing the date is one option, but it’s a simplistic solution that won’t achieve real change for First Nations people. Instead, many are suggesting a more pluralistic interpretation of the date, with the option not to celebrate or recognise it as one alternative.
Australian clothing brand SPELL is one such company. Since 2021, it has given its employees the option to swap their public holiday on January 26th to May 26th, National Sorry Day instead.
SPELL’s Co-Founder and Chief Branding Officer, Elizabeth Abegg, told The Latch that the change was in alignment with their “company values” and described it as “our way of acknowledging the need for wider (Government) change as well as at the request of some of our employees”.
They note that they sought advice on the change from an Indigenous cultural expert, who suggested giving employees the option to take the leave whenever they wanted, but, as a company, having a single day allows for a “smoother” process.
“What we see as important is to consider the meaning of the date and understand why January 26th is not in line with true reconciliation,” Abegg said.
The company is in favour of a date change for Australia Day, but says that, in the meantime, they will opt to honour Indigenous people by making this adjustment.
“We would love to be able to openly celebrate our diverse nation including our incredible First Nations people. Being able to be part of the land that has the oldest and richest living culture in the world should be the biggest celebration of all.”
Related: Reframing the Date: Jack Latimore on Our Nation’s Annual Argument
Related: Playing Politics: Why Labor Won’t Move Australia Day
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