The demonstrations on Invasion Day this year were the largest seen in a generation. Tens of thousands of people marched in cities around the country to demand justice for Aboriginal Australians and voice their anger at the contempt shown to them by successive governments. A common theme was opposition to the official Australia Day narrative celebrating January 26 as a day of national unity.
Despite the efforts of political leaders and the corporate media to portray this movement as a fringe minority, the vast crowds that turned out for the protests – a big increase on last year – exposes this as a lie. The stage is being set for a revival of mass struggle in the coming years on a scale that has not been seen since the 1970s.
January 26 is a day of mourning for Indigenous people because it is the anniversary of the British Empire’s annexation of the Australian territory. During the colonisation that followed, native communities were massacred and forced from lands they had been living on for many thousands of years. This savage campaign was a key process in the early development of capitalism in Australia, which required new land in order to make profit.
The tragedy of the genocide, and the resilience of the First Nations people to have survived it, should never be forgotten. January 26 should be officially recognised as Invasion Day, while keeping it as a public holiday, to mark these events and commemorate the history of Aboriginal resistance.
The official fanfare around the institution of “Australia Day” is an attempt by the capitalist elite to make ordinary people feel that we share with them a common history and common interests. Nothing could be further from the truth. In early 2018 Oxfam reported that the richest 1% of the Australian population now owns more wealth than the bottom 70% combined. While the government discusses cutting corporate taxes, the number of billionaires has more than doubled since 2008. At the same time funding for social services of all kinds is under attack, and wages have stagnated.
This is not new. Class struggle has been the defining feature of modern Australian history, from the brutal early penal colonies, to the Eureka Rebellion, the often forgotten 1917 general strike, and the Medibank strike of 1976. Promoting nationalism and blaming social problems on minority groups are the go-to methods of the rich exploiters to confuse, distract, divide and rule over everyone else. It takes collective action by working people, standing united across all other boundaries, to undermine support for their ideas and challenge their grip on power.
The positive things that most non-Indigenous people associate with Australia Day – time off work, socialising with family and friends, appreciating our comparatively high standard of living – are all worth celebrating. These things however have nothing to do with British colonisation or Australian nationalism. The so-called “Australian way of life” was made possible by the labour movement’s hard fought battles that yielded reforms like the right to vote, the eight-hour day, safe working conditions and the social safety net.
This is why socialists call for May Day, or International Workers’ Day, to also be a national public holiday. May Day has historically been a day to celebrate the victories that organised workers have achieved, but in most Australian states it is not recognised. Acknowledging January 26 as Invasion Day and making May Day into a major national celebration would be an important symbolic step forward.
A mass movement has the power to put these changes on the agenda. In Melbourne, the official Australia Day parade was completely overshadowed by the gigantic Invasion Day march. Building the movement on the streets in every city is the most effective way to change broader social attitudes and heap pressure on the major parties to abandon January 26 as Australia Day.
The trade unions can play a major role to make this happen. If the Australian Council of Trade Unions actively mobilised support behind the call to make January 26 Invasion Day, and launched a serious campaign for May Day to be a paid public holiday, it would receive a huge echo. The full practical and organisational backing of the unions as well as community groups would make a great difference to how the movement for Aboriginal justice unfolds.
It is in the interests of all ordinary people to stand in solidarity with the Indigenous community’s struggle. Overcoming the legacy of colonialism and the social crisis facing Aboriginal people today requires major public investment to provide accessible free education and healthcare, housing and jobs for all. This can only be achieved by ending the barbarism of capitalism and fighting together for a democratic socialist society.
By Jeremy Trott