Barbeques and black armbands:

Australians’ attitudes to Australia Day


Authors: Darren Pennay1, Frank Bongiorno2

25 January 2019

1. Darren Pennay is founder and CEO of the Social Research Centre. He is also a Campus visitor at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Social Science Research. 2. Professor Frank Bongiorno is Head of the School of History at ANU

The Social Research Centre included questions on Wave 22 of Life in AustraliaTM to ascertain community attitudes to having our national day of celebration – Australia Day – on the 26th of January.

The survey questions were not designed simply to explore whether Australians are in favour of or opposed to changing the date of our national day. Questions were also asked, among those opposed to 26 January as our national day, to measure support for other days/dates, and, importantly, to try to better understand the aspects of our culture and heritage that are most strongly associated with Australia Day.

Support for Australia Day

We commenced by explaining the historical significance of 26 January to respondents. This was done in the following terms, which seek to incorporate seemingly common understandings of the day’s broad public meaning and significance rather than necessarily strict historical accuracy in every respect:... "Australia’s national day is 26 January. It marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, NSW in 1788 and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip." Respondents were then asked... "To what extent do you agree or disagree that 26 January is the best day for our national day of celebration?"

A clear majority of Australians (70%) ‘agree’ that January 26 is the best day for our national celebration, while more than a quarter (27%) ‘disagree’.

In terms of sociodemographic characteristics, support for 26 January increases with age, being notably lower for the younger generations at 47% and 58% for GenZ and Millennials respectively, increasing to 73% for GenX and 80% amongst Baby Boomers. Amongst the Silent Generation support for 26 January is nearly unanimous (90%).

Support for 26 January was lower among those with a university degree (55%) compared to those without (75%). In terms of geography, support was highest in Western Australia (83%) and lowest in Victoria (65%), and higher in the regions (78%) compared to our capital cities (66%).

There are also stark differences in the level of support for 26 January as the best date for our national day of celebration by party political affiliation. Support is highest amongst Coalition (85%) and One Nation (94%) supporters compared with 62% among Labor supporters and just 38% among Greens. These results point to significant differences in terms of understandings of the meaning and significance of Australian historical experience according to political ideology or allegiance.

Support for alternative days

Those who disagreed that 26 January is the best day for our national celebration were asked... "On which day do you think Australia should have its national day?". Ten options were offered or an alternative option could be nominated. A brief description of each alternative was provided to online respondents and read out at the discretion of our telephone interviewers to the telephone respondents.

The most popular nominations are shown below.

Reconciliation Day – 27 May | The date of the 1967 referendum that removed clauses from the constitution that discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (24%).

Federation Day – 1 January | The date marking the official formation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 (18%).

Mate Day – 8 May | ‘May eight’ sounds like “mate” (15%).

Constitution Day – 9 July | The date Queen Victoria gave her acceptance to the Constitution of Australia in 1900 (7%).

Opening of the first Federal Parliament – 9 May | The date the first Federal Parliament was opened in 1901 (7%), and

The commencement of the Australia Act – 3 March | The date Queen Elizabeth II signed a proclamation to give the Australian courts full independence from the UK and end constitutional links between the states and the United Kingdom (6%).

The highest levels of support for Reconciliation Day are evident amongst residents of the ACT (39%), university graduates (35%), the overseas born (34%) and GenX (also 34%). Across the political spectrum the Greens are the most likely to endorse Reconciliation Day (at 27%).

Aspects of Australia Day

Australia Day is about acknowledging and celebrating the contribution that every Australian makes to our contemporary and dynamic nation. From our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - who have been here for more than 65,000 years - to those who have lived here for generations, to those who have come from all corners of the globe to call our country home.

The marking of 26 January is an important date in Australia’s history and has changed over time: starting as a celebration for emancipated convicts and evolving into what is now a celebration of Australia that reflects the nation’s diverse people.

(The Australia Day website | www.australiaday.org.au)

To gain a better insight into community views as to what Australia Day represents we asked a series of questions to explore which aspects of Australia’s culture and heritage are thought to be most strongly associated with the 26 January Australia Day celebrations.

A minority of Australians (40%) believe that 26 January celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage. In addition, the country is divided on whether having our national day on 26 January is offensive to Indigenous Australians, with 45% agreeing that this is the case.

The association between Australia Day and our British culture and heritage was strong in NSW (73%) – possibly reflecting the particular significance of 26 January for the history of that state – but still below the levels observed in the Territories (ACT – 81% and the NT – 77%) and strongest amongst Coalition and One Nation supporters, at 73% and 71% respectively. Sixty-three percent agree that holding a national day of celebration on 26 January celebrates our democracy and system of government. This view is most widely held by Coalition supporters (77%) more than Labor or Greens (60% and 39%) and increases by age from a low of 49% amongst GenZ to a high of 84% amongst the Silent Generation.

Fifty-eight percent agree that holding our national day of celebration on 26 January celebrates the contribution of all immigrants to Australia. This is a view that receives stronger endorsement from those born overseas (65%) compared to the Australian born (55%).

Two questions were asked to explore the perceived appropriateness of having Australia Day on 26 January with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage.

Forty percent of respondents agree that having Australia Day on 26 January celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage, but the majority (57%) disagree. Those most likely to disagree that the current Australia Day arrangements are a celebration of Indigenous culture and heritage are Greens and Labor supporters (78% and 64%), capital city residents (60%) more than those outside of the capitals (52%), and younger persons (65% for both GenZ and the Millennials).

In general, it would appear that more conservative political views correlate with an association of Australia Day with British heritage, democracy and diversity, which might be seen as part of the matrix of ideas that helps to sustain support for Australia Day among such people as an appropriately modern and inclusive national celebration, one that balances respect for origins and recognition of change. Labor and Greens supporters are less accepting of these ideas. The proposition that the day celebrates Indigenous culture and heritage is less accepted in general, but rejected most strongly by those usually associated with more progressive politics: Labor and Greens supporters, those living in the capitals and the young.

When asked whether the current Australia Day arrangements are offensive to Indigenous Australians, public opinion is quite evenly divided– 45% agree that this is the case and 51% disagree. Those most likely to see the current arrangements as divisive are women (49%) more so than men (42%) – possibly reflecting the well-recognised modern pattern for women to have more progressive political opinions-– those with a University degree (59%), Victorians (51%) and capital city residents (48%). The political party divide on this issue is again very evident with Labor and the Greens (50% and 75%) much more likely to agree that the current arrangements are offensive to Indigenous Australians than Coalition and One Nation supporters (32% and 12%).

So, what do these results tell us?

At one level they show that a clear majority of Australians support 26 January as the best day for our national celebration. This finding is generally supported by other recent polling on this topic. That said, the Life in AustraliaTM survey findings also reveal that Australians’ attitudes to Australia Day are more complex and nuanced than suggested by this single figure.

Only a minority (40%) think the current Australia Day celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage and 45% think the day is offensive to Indigenous Australians. In fact, somewhat paradoxically, nearly three in 10 (29%) of those respondents who agree with having Australia Day on 26 January are also of the view that the date is offensive to Indigenous Australians. Presumably, there are other factors in play as to why people support 26 January as our national day even when they think it is offensive to Indigenous Australians.

So, while a substantial majority support Australia Day, a substantial minority acknowledge that the current arrangements are either not inclusive of, or are offensive to, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. On this basis, it seems that many of us are sensitive to the concerns of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders with respect to the current arrangements but not concerned enough to warrant changing the date. Here, we have evidence of a complex historical consciousness capable of incorporating a range of perspectives and stories about the Australian past, and its significance for 26 January, even when they are apparently in tension with one another (Clark 2016). The results suggest an appreciation of the complexity of the issues raised by Australia Day even while most continue to wish to maintain it.

What factors are at play here? One school of thought is that Australians place a high value on the current date, while being mindful of its negative connotations, as it is an important marker in the calendar and our attachment to this one last summer public holiday before the school year starts again generally outweighs about any offence caused to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Bongiorno 2017). Support for this view comes from previous research which shows that when Australians were asked to associate three words with Australia Day, the most commonly chosen words were ‘barbeque’, ‘celebration’ and ‘holiday’.

Nonetheless, the combination of attitudes uncovered in this survey seem almost perfectly designed to ensure that the day remains one of disagreement and debate. In these circumstances, any expectation that it might perform a similar kind of civic function to 4 July (Independence Day) in the United States or 14 July (Bastille Day) in France seems somewhat fanciful. It may be that Australia Day – and the fortnight or so surrounding it – are evolving into the annual season in which some of the deepest paradoxes of identity and belonging in our settler society play out in the public arena.

Our thanks goes to Life in Australia™ members who generously gave their time to participate in this survey.

The Social Research Centre provides the Australian social science research community with access to world-class social research and evaluation services. Our motivation stems from the desire to collect data of the highest quality, undertake research in the public good and enhance knowledge and contribute to an improved understanding of Australian society and our place in the world.

The Social Research Centre is a subsidiary of the Australian National University.

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