Thousands protest holiday ‘invasion’ in Australia | Indigenous rights news

Thousands of people marched in cities across Australia, rallying in support of indigenous rights and protesting their country’s national day marking the date the British colonial fleet sailed into Sydney Harbor more than two centuries ago.

In Sydney, the capital of New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – large crowds gathered in the city’s central business district on Thursday, some carrying Aboriginal flags and chanting “Australia Day is dead”.

Indigenous activist Paul Silva said the national holiday – dubbed “Invasion Day” by some – should be scrapped.

“If someone broke into your home, killed your family and stole your land, I can 100 percent guarantee that family would not be celebrating that day,” he told the crowd.

“I don’t know how it makes sense for any citizen of this country to go out and have a barbecue and celebrate genocide,” he said.

Indigenous poet Lizzie Jarrett said Sydney was “ground zero for the genocide of First Nations people”.

“You think we’re angry? Wouldn’t you be angry?” she asked the crowd.

Indigenous Australians have lived on the Australian continent for at least 65,000 years, but have suffered widespread discrimination and oppression since the arrival of the British in 1788. Australian historian Lyndall Ryan estimates that more than 10,000 Indigenous people were killed in 400 separate massacres by the British when colonization first began.

Currently, about 880,000 people out of the 25 million Australian population identify as Indigenous.

They were barred from voting in some states and territories until the 1960s and lag behind other Australians on economic and social indicators in what the government calls “entrenched inequality”.

Their life expectancy is also years shorter than other Australians and they suffer disproportionately high rates of suicide, domestic violence and are far more likely to die in police custody.

In Australia’s capital, Canberra, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese marked Australia Day with a flag-raising and citizenship ceremony in which he paid tribute to the nation’s Indigenous people.

“Let us all recognize the unique privilege of sharing this continent with the oldest continuous culture in the world,” the Prime Minister said.

But while he admitted it was a “difficult day” for Indigenous Australians, he said there were no plans to change the date of the holiday.

Market research firm Roy Morgan’s annual survey released this week found almost two-thirds of Australians say January 26 should be considered “Australia Day”, largely unchanged from a year ago. Others believe it should be “Invasion Day”.

Amid the debate, some companies have adopted flexibility around holiday observance. Australia’s largest telecommunications company Telstra this year gave its staff the option to work on January 26 and take another day off instead.

“For many First Nations people, Australia Day … marks a turning point that has led to lives lost, culture devalued and connections between people and places destroyed,” Telstra chief executive Vicki Brady wrote on LinkedIn.

Anti-Australia Day protests were also held in other Australian state capitals, including Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke, reporting from the rally in Brisbane, said momentum to scrap Australia Day had grown over the years.

“People here say it’s a day of mourning,” she said. “They are gathering to protest against the celebrations of modern Australia, on a day they believe saw the mass displacement of First Nations people. So, this group is certainly growing numerically. Polls have shown that this is increasingly supported by younger generations.”

People hold a banner as they participate in the annual "The day of the invasion" protest march in Sydney
People hold a banner as they take part in the annual ‘Invasion Day’ protest march through the streets of Sydney on Australia Day [Robert Wallace/ AFP]

This year’s holiday also comes as Albanese’s centre-left Labor Party government plans a referendum on recognizing indigenous peoples in the country’s constitution and requiring them to be consulted on decisions that affect their lives.

The public will vote on the change – called an Indigenous Voice to Parliament – in a binding referendum later this year.

Currently, the constitution, which was adopted in 1901, does not mention indigenous Australians. The proposal to recognize Indigenous Australians in the charter was a promise the Labor Party made in last May’s general election when it ended nearly a decade of the Conservative Liberal – National Coalition government.

But changing the constitution is difficult, requiring a majority vote in most states.

The feat has only happened eight times in 44 attempts since the federation was founded in 1901.

A successful referendum would bring Australia in line with Canada, New Zealand and the United States in formally recognizing Indigenous people.

Some Indigenous Australians have also expressed opposition to the proposal.

Several people at an Invasion Day rally in Sydney carried a banner that read: “Vote No Referendum. We deserve more than a voice.”

In Melbourne, Indigenous activist Uncle Gary Foley said the “voice” would only be “cosmetic”.

“Like lipstick on a pig, it won’t address the deep underlying problems that still pervade Australian society, and that primary problem is white Australian racism,” he said.

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