Today is the highly contested national public holiday called “Australia Day.” It is the anniversary of British arrival in 1788. The colonisers invaded a continent that was home to more than 500 nations. For Aboriginal people, this began a war set on destroying the oldest culture on earth — through the theft of land, the introduction of diseases such as small pox, destruction of culture and sacred sites, loss of language, stolen wages, massacres, removal of children and other genocidal practices.
Opposition to this commemoration has a long, proud history. On 26 January 1938, the 150th anniversary of the illegal occupation, Aboriginal people protested with a Day of Mourning. In 1988, the bi-centennial of invasion, 40,000 travelled to Sydney to join a massive march led by First Nations people from across the country. In recent years, the numbers celebrating Indigenous survival, rejecting patriotic flag waving and joining protest marches have been enormous. In many parts of the country, participation in diverse Invasion Day activities — dawn services, mass rallies and huge displays of First People’s creativity, culture and strength — has completely overshadowed support for “official” parades and festivities to mark the Australia Day public holiday.
Invasion Day 2022 is notable as the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Old Parliament House in Canberra. This site of the longest protest in this country’s history is now heritage listed. The ongoing demonstration continues as a vibrant, living struggle asserting the sovereignty of First Nations.
This enduring action was a response by determined young Aboriginal radicals to a provocative government declaration. Liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon succeeded in sparking Black Power rage when he chose Invasion Day 1972 to make a major statement reaffirming his government’s assimilationist agenda and declaring he would never grant land rights. This was the spark that ignited what became the Tent Embassy, full of white hot anger ready to burn.
The iconic 1967 referendum mobilised support with the call to “Vote ‘YES’ for Aborigines.” While its passage was a significant achievement, it did not deliver the concrete changes Aboriginal people hoped for. A more radical pan-Aboriginal Black Power movement embraced new tactics and demands that mobilised big rallies for land rights. The youthful rebels were a product of the era. Global struggles against colonialism and the Black Panther Party in the U.S. provided inspiration. Black Power activists were part of the anti-Vietnam War movement supporting the aspirations of the Vietcong. They provided crucial leadership in the anti-apartheid struggle. This movement was also well connected with trade unions, the Left more broadly and the blossoming women’s and gay liberation upsurges.
The daily reality, which motivated the young visionaries half a century ago — the lack of self-determination, routine police harassment and intimidation, over-incarceration, deaths in custody and grinding inequality — remain burning issues today.
The wave of Omicron COVID infections that has engulfed much of the country brings health inequality into sharp relief. There is a yawning gap between the life expectancy for First Nations people and the general population, with Indigenous people expected to die eight to nine years younger. Despite First Nations people being amongst those meant to be prioritised for COVID vaccinations, a higher percentage of Indigenous people remain unvaccinated when compared with the community as a whole.
Mandated lockdowns have now been lifted. While governments focus more on the health of profit than the well-being of First Nations elders, vulnerable people and frontline workers, the community is applying science and solidarity — mixing as little as possible to slow the spread of the highly infectious variant. While many in-person mass events — including the Invasion Day rally in Melbourne — are not going ahead, nothing can extinguish the significance of Invasion Day. Nor the meaning behind this name, now understood by so many in the community.
In recent years, there have been calls to change the date and find a new one to mark a revamped national day. Such calls miss the point entirely!
January 26 will always be Invasion Day — it’s an historical fact. We need to tell the truth about the past while working to forge a different future. Finding a replacement day for flag-waving jingoism will not get us there! Besides its genocidal racism, “Australia Day” promotes reactionary nationalism — the idea that we, whose wages and lands are robbed, have common cause with the thieves in control, not with the exploited and oppressed in other countries.
Australia is a society built on the stolen lands of the First Nations. It is also built on the shameful legacy of the White Australia policy. And it is a society divided by class — haves versus have-nots. On this Invasion Day — as the pandemic rages — the government wants, more than ever, to make working people believe in a mythical national interest by peddling the lie that we’re all in it together. We’re not, and we have to take a side!
We must stand against those stealing the lands and resources of First Nations people across the globe and imposing cultural genocide through forced assimilation. Against those who profiteer while endangering the lives of workers everywhere. Against the corporate giants, who enrich themselves by selling vaccines to wealthy countries and ignoring the needs of poor countries — prolonging the pandemic and imperilling us all. These are all the same forces of big capital and servile governments.
Those bold, young Black Power radicals who established the Tent Embassy on Invasion Day half a century ago understood this clearly. As internationalists, they knew who stood with them and who to blame!
The multicultural working class and First Nations people share a common enemy and interest. Uncompromising recognition of oppressed nations’ right to self-determination is a non-negotiable prerequisite to building the resistance needed to bring this brutal system down.
Freedom Socialist Party — Australian Section
26 January 2022