January 26 is a day set aside on the Australian calendar to remember the arrival of Europeans to our shore in the landing of the First Fleet, 1788. This is also a day remembered by Australian Indigenous communities as a day of invasion. Should we celebrate Australia Day, or recognise it as a day of mourning as some Australians see it today?

This is a debate that reoccurs every year, and with many views to consider it never seems to be settled. To answer these questions, we need to look at where we are in the time continuum of Australian history and consider a few truths. In recognising past events, we can better understand how to come together and consider how to celebrate what we have today in Australia, a nation truly worth celebrating.

Australia is one of the most multicultural societies in the world. To achieve this, it is and has always been a nation of migrants. Our evolution has been built on people coming to this country at various points in time across millennia and making contributions that have impacted and influence how we live today.

So, we need to ask the question…… where would we be without migrants?

To begin, let’s look at the first wave of migration, the indigenous people of this nation. Their journey began from the origins of Africa. The first people arrived on our shores more than 60 000 years ago. They learnt how to adapt and successfully live in a harsh and challenging landscape, sharing their life experiences down through generations over millennia. These first migrants had a culture rich in historical value and beliefs, and their connections to the land are important to recognise and celebrate long into the future.

Fast forward to 1788, when the British government began a new and brutal chapter in our story by establishing a penal settlement in Sydney Cove. The history of the 18th and 19th century early Australian colonists does not look favourable, as the actions of many new settlers were tragic and unforgiving. The indigenous people struggled to understand the purpose of this period where both parties suffered greatly and paid a heavy price. This is a chapter in our history we all must acknowledge and never forget.

The poor souls that arrived on our shores as convicts on the First Fleet in 1788, did not do so by choice. They were caught in a situation of circumstances unfolding in England after the Industrial Revolution and the American War of Independence. The British Secretary of State at the time, Lord Sydney (Thomas Townshend), was responsible for coming up with a solution to the overcrowding of prison hulks that were occurring on the English waterways. He set a blueprint for Captain Arthur Phillip to follow in establishing the fledgling society that was going to be so far away. A new foundation of structures and procedures that would support important principles surrounding the rule of law – this was imperative as there was no possibility of anyone returning to the Motherland, the new colony would have to learn how to govern themselves. Captain Arthur Phillip was a fair man and he supported Townshend’s thinking. So, on arrival into Sydney Cove in 1788, he immediately actioned a system where everyone was treated equally under the law, regardless of their status in society.

Today, Australia is still governed by the rule of law; no-one is above the law, the presumption of innocence, right to a fair trial, and independence of the judiciary, all underpin the virtues of our governance. This has been vital in maintaining the peace and security of our democracy and therefore, worth celebrating.

Since this time, many more migrants have arrived on our shores and have made worthy contributions to Australian society. They have brought with them their own celebrations, cuisine, and skills to work hard in providing a better future for their families as well as the communities they live in. Australia’s system of government has also evolved over this time to become a representative democracy. Today, citizens can choose who can make civic decisions on their behalf, decisions that benefit everyone. This ensures a fair and just society, unlike many other countries that frequently experience the struggle for democratic representation and freedom of speech.

Each struggle drawn from our history has contributed to the development of the safe and prosperous society we have today. Looking forward and celebrating our unique circumstances means taking the time to remember and commemorate the events of the past, and to acknowledge and truly appreciate all the people who have been involved in the development of this country. Understanding and acknowledging indigenous perspectives from our history is also important. Their rich culture and beliefs must be preserved, shared and celebrated.  Therefore, Australia Day provides an opportunity for citizens to feel an important sense of belonging and to be able to recognise the contributions all migrants have made to our nation.

So, let’s come together and continue building a nation for all Australian citizens to enjoy and appreciate long into the future. The peace and security of our nation depend on it.

Leanne Davis
Primary Education Officer – Rule of Law Education
Primary Education Resources