The Australia Day public holiday, held each year on 26 January, commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet and the beginning of European settlement in Australia. In 1988, the 200th anniversary was acknowledged with a  year-long programme of  events,  which  included  a touring exhibition, the presentation of a medallion to all Australian schoolchildren, an official bicentennial logo, the release of bicentennial number plates, the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra by Queen Elizabeth II, and World Expo 88 in Brisbane. The celebrations began on 26 January with a re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour, accompanied by a flotilla of tall ships from all over the world. Henry recalls that, ‘The tall ships just reminded me of what happened in 1788, when Sydney Harbour was invaded and settled by the English.’

As Henry’s comments suggest, the Bicentenary was a divisive moment for Australia because it brought questions about the colonisation of Australia to the fore. On the day itself, more than 40,000 people marched in protest through Sydney as part of a wider ‘bicentennial boycott’ movement. Those who opposed the commemorations held the view that Australia was not peacefully settled by the British, but rather invaded, occupied and colonised. The so-called ‘History Wars’ that followed in  the 1990s generated debate about Aboriginal dispossession, the  extent  of the violence of the British invasion, and whether Australia could be accurately described as ‘unsettled’ before 1788, an opinion expressed as recently as 2014 by then prime minister, Tony Abbott.

Like Henry, Everald is of the view that Invasion Day more accurately describes the events of 26 January 1788. For him, the contributions and achievements (not the least of which was survival against the odds) of a rag-tag bunch of convicts — sometimes referred to as the first boat people — back in 1788 is outweighed by the ensuing clash of cultures that was so detrimental to First Nations people. However, he does not believe anyone living today should beat themselves up for an event in history over which they had no control. ‘I believe it’s quite correct to say England invaded Australia, but nobody can turn the clock back. I had nothing to do with King George III deciding he’s going to send convicts out,  and  I  don’t intend to give up my bit of land because of something Governor Phillip did when he arrived. We’ve got to have compromise between it all.’

For Uncle Albert, the Australia Day anniversary does not cause more or less offence than any other day of the year. It is simply a fact that 26 January 1788 marks the beginning of the catastrophic changes experienced, since that time, by Indigenous people. For him, Australia Day is an opportunity to speak about reconciliation, a day for healing. He has embraced the spirit of goodwill that Australia Day typically engenders and is now an Australia Day ambassador. ‘I am deeply committed to playing a part in the reconciliation journey and to telling the story of our shared history since 26 January 1788’, he says. ‘The true history: the good and the bad; the great accomplishments and the deplorable deeds; the heroes and the villains. It all needs to be told. We all need to know it. Reconciliation comes with knowing our past, learning from it and using that knowledge to build a better future for all Australians. We don’t want to leave anyone behind; we can’t afford to leave anyone behind.’

Read more on: Goondeen : Understanding Australia

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