Australia Day is celebrated each year on the anniversary of the first fleet from Britain landing in Sydney Cove. It is a public holiday, and the significance of the day differs amongst the nation’s population.
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Many Australians consider January 26 with national pride, flying the Australian flag from businesses, homes, cars and even their babies. They attend festivals, fireworks, community and sporting events or gather for family barbecues at homes, parks or on the beach.
However, there is also a growing movement of people who feel the holiday must change date or theme on account of the terrible impact of colonisation on indigenous people – who called Australia home for tens of thousands of years before European settlers arrived nearly 230 years ago.
The public holiday of Australia Day always occurs on 26 January no matter what day of the week it occurs. Many people become citizens of Australia on Australia Day at Citizenship Ceremonies across the nation. It is also the day that the Australian Government awards the Order of Australia to selected Australians, which is ‘an Australian society of honour for according recognition to Australian citizens and other persons for achievement or meritorious service’.
The beginnings of colonised Australia
As a nation, Australia had a painful start. Under British rule it was initially intended as a penal colony. The ruling classes in 18th century England considered criminals to be incapable of rehabilitation. Their method of reprimand was to segregate convicts from the general population.
In October 1786, Arthur Phillip was appointed captain of the HMS Sirius, and assigned to transport British convicts to the continent. His mission was to establish an agricultural work camp. Captain Phillip commanded a fleet of 11 ships and 1,500 passengers, including 700 prisoners. After an 8-month journey, they reached Sydney Cove.
It was 26 January 1788 when the First Fleet landed in Sydney Cove. Between 18 and 20 January 18 and 20, the First Fleet of 11 ships sailed into Botany Bay to set up a penal colony there but the bay proved to be unsuitable. Captain Phillip took a team north and named the area on the south shore of Port Jackson as Sydney Cove. The formal establishment of the colony occurred two weeks later on 7 February.
The first colony got off to a rocky beginning as the soil was poor and the settlers didn’t know how to farm. The settlement was on the verge of starvation for several years. However, under the able leadership of Captain Phillip, the people persevered. By 1792, when he returned to England, the outpost was prospering. In 1818, 26 January was declared a legal holiday, marking the 30th anniversary of the British settlement in Australia.
Over the next 80 years, the population steadily increased, and five additional self-governing colonies were created. On January 1, 1901, all six colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia.
Australian of the Year Awards
Each year on 26 January, an “Australian of the Year” award ceremony takes place. The lawns of Parliament House in Canberra are the site of this prestigious event. The awards go to four individuals who have made outstanding achievements. The award categories are:
- Australian of the Year
- Senior Australian of the Year
- Young Australian of the Year
- Australia’s Local Hero
Award recipients enjoy tea with the Prime Minister and lunch with the Governor General. Then the honours are conducted from a podium in front of Parliament House.
Events across the country
- Sydney Harbour Bridge flag-raising
Australia Day in Sydney starts at the Harbour with the 7:30am raising of the Aboriginal and Australian flags on Sydney Harbour Bridge. This dramatic event begins with the lighting of an honorary fire at the Sydney Opera House, which is carried to the Tribal Warrior, an Aboriginal vessel. Bark canoes are then dispatched to meet the Tribal Warrior beneath Harbour Bridge. Fire from each of the tribes rises like incense as the Aboriginal and Australian flags are raised, paying tribute to the nation’s history.
- Sydney Ferrython
This unique race begins at 11am, when decorated commuter ferries depart Circular Quay for Shark Island and back to Sydney Harbour Bridge. Although the ferries don’t have passengers, the feat is viewed from vantage points along the racing route. Premium perches are found around Circular Quay, Sydney Opera House, and the Royal Botanic Gardens. Spectators can also cross Harbour Bridge for a view from Milsons Point.
- Salute to Australia
A spectacular 21-Gun Salute to Australia takes place at 12pm at Bradfield Park, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Military officers are honoured by the salute from the Royal Australian Navy Flagship. Sydney-siders join together to sing the national anthem, led by synchronized choirs. Completing the grand ceremony is a breathtaking aerial display by the Royal Australian Air Force.
- Australia Day Harbour Parade
Starting at 12:45pm, vessels in colorful flair and flags loop around Sydney Harbour and finish at Athol Bay. At 2pm, $2,000 in cash prizes are awarded for the Best Dressed Vessels.
- Tall Ships Race
The spellbinding parade of Sydney’s tall ships starts at 1pm. Beginning at Bradley’s Head, historic and charter vessels race their way down the harbour and back to Sydney Harbour Bridge. Regal white sails kiss the sky while surfing sapphire waters.
- Australia Day Regatta
The Australia Day Regatta begins at 1:15pm, featuring a line-up of traditional and classic yachts, some of which are 100 years old. A second fleet of racing yachts zooms to Botany Bay and back, competing for the City of Sydney Trophy. Prime viewing spots are from Milsons Point and Lavender Bay.
- Australia Day Parade
A thrilling annual tradition is the Australia Day Parade. It is preceded by a rousing flag-raising ceremony at 10:30am, at Melbourne Town Hall. The Governor of Victoria gives an Australia Day Address, accompanied by the Royal Guard of Honour. Then the Premier of Victoria leads the public in the Australia Day Affirmation. At 11am, the colourful parade begins on Swanston Street. It then crosses Princess Bridge and proceeds into Kings Domain. Admiring crowds line the streets, cheering on participants and waving flags and banners.
- Melbourne RACV Picnic and Federation Vehicle Display
Kings Domain Gardens in Melbourne is the site of a classic car show on Australia Day. Over 450 vintage, veteran, and classic vehicles are on display in the gardens, beginning at 10am. There is entertainment throughout the day, including special guest appearances. Delicious food is available, along with free activities, and giveaways. At 3:30pm, the cars leave the gardens, and process through the streets. The event is sponsored by local community groups, including Greening Australia, Royal District Nursing Service, Alzheimer’s Australia, and the National Stroke Foundation.
- Australia Day at Docklands
A day-long celebration takes place at Docklands in the NewQuay Piazza. Beginning at 12pm, there are special performances, live music, and free activities. Participants can shop and feast to their hearts’ content. Concluding the fun is a fabulous fireworks display.
At The Parklands at South Bank in Brisbane, fireworks cap off a day of music, interactive art, and swimming.
Perth’s Langley Park is the site of the state’s largest annual fireworks celebration. Smiling down on the Swan River, the park is also host to pony and camel rides, a petting zoo, and a laser water show.