Linda Burney: "Australia Day remains a controversial, even painful event."

On Australia Day, 1988, I helped organised a march through Sydney: 40,000 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people protesting for land rights but also for recognition of our story.

We walked past the NSW Parliament, which would not see its first Aboriginal representative until my election in 2007; past courts which would not see their first Senior Counsel until Tony McAvoy’s appointment in 2015; past a Central Business District that was almost entirely devoid of Aboriginal business leaders.

The absence of Aboriginal voices from within the institutions which Australia Day is ostensibly a celebration of was a reminder of how marginalised First Peoples remained even then.

Many of these things have changed.

At the time we were angry and hurt that our story, millennia of lived human experience on this continent, was all but ignored by Centenary Australia Day celebrations.

Linda Burney MP delivering her maiden speech to parliament in September, 2016, wearing a cloak featuring her clan and personal totems. Image: Parliament of Australia.

Today, I still feel that discomfort and I know others in our community do too. There are many things to celebrate about Australia, but the birth of the Terra Nullius myth isn’t one of them.

There is no question that for First Peoples, Australia Day remains a controversial, even painful event.

The massacres of the colonial era, the loss of so much of our culture and the very real human impact of the arrival loom large.

It is only in the last 20 years that this truth has begun to be told. In fact, for a long time we practised a kind of wilful blindness about our history. Now more than ever Australia Day events recognise First Peoples and recognise what the arrival meant for the original inhabitants of this land.

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As a community we have to ask: are the events of January 26, 1788, what most Australians have in mind when we celebrate Australia Day?


No-one I have spoken to considers our national day a celebration of the raising of the Union Jack and proclamation of British sovereignty.

People celebrate our shared values, they celebrate the parts of our nation which make it a wonderful place to live – migrant communities today celebrate that they live in a nation which allows them to retain their religion, culture and their stories.

I don’t see the date of Australia Day being changed any time soon, but the conversation is an important one to have.

Settlement or invasion is a matter of perspective – whether you were standing on the shore or in the boats in the middle of the harbour in 1788.

Linda Burney MP. (Image: Facebook)

If we are going to make Australia Day inclusive, we have to acknowledge that it means very different things for different people.

This year I will begin my Australia Day at a citizenship ceremony, welcoming new members of community. They will be proud to bring their cultures to ours and we will be richer for the experience it affords us.

Later in the afternoon I will attend Sydney’s Yabun Festival, with hundreds of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people where I will celebrate the survival of the oldest continuing culture on earth.

Two very different celebrations, but both legitimate expressions of pride.

We are on a path towards a more truthful Australia Day celebration and while we have work to do, I am pleased to say that in this respect we have made incredible progress since 1988.

Linda Burney MP is the federal member for Barton and Shadow Minister for Human Services. Upon her election in September 2016, she became the first Indigenous woman to serve in the House of Representatives.