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Booze and the Bicentennial: How we came to mark Australia Day on January 26

For a long time, the 26th of January mattered little to those outside of NSW. Illustration: Frank Maiorana
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I have no childhood memories of Australia Day. In the 1970s it just wasn’t that important.

There might be a holiday, or not, depending on which state you lived in. But there was none of the compulsory nationalism that nowadays finds its ugliest expression in pumped-up bogans proudly inked with Southern Cross tattoos and wearing the flag as a super hero cape.

Even the Bicentennial in 1988 was not enough for all the states and territories to agree on a common public holiday. That didn’t happen until 1994.

No, Australia Day for Generation X was that last slow, beery burp of summer. One final indulgence before heading back to work or study for real. I seem to recall there was a committee appointed to encourage a more diligent observance of the national day.

The problem might have been that, for most of white settlement, January 26 was considered of little relevance to anyone outside of NSW. Each colony had its own anniversary of foundation, and even after 1901 each state tended to mark that date as the start of its particular creation myth.

Even in Sydney, the 26th was not a rock-solid historical waypoint. It simply marked the day on which the last of the First Fleet ships managed to fight their way through squalls and headwinds, out of Botany Bay and into Port Jackson. Someone ran a flag up a pole, the marines fired off a couple of muskets and, according to possibly dubious legend, the convicts and sailors all got roaring drunk and had an orgy.

The colony was formally established later, on February 7, with the reading of the King’s proclamation. Even the plaque that marks where the British first planted their flag in NSW, a memorial that sits – appropriately enough – outside a pub, isn’t accurate. The shoreline was further inland at that time.

For most of white settlement, January 26 was considered of little relevance to anyone outside of NSW.

The commemoration of January 26 was long a private affair. But it might have contributed to one of the first real public crises in the early colony, exactly 20 years after the alleged foundational orgy.

In 1808, on the night of January 25, officers of the Rum Corps gathered to bend their elbows and toast the coming of the Crown to the antipodes. The next morning, sore of head and foul of mood, they launched a coup against Governor William Bligh.

The majority of Australians who don’t realise they’re celebrating the seizure of the continent in the name of mad King George – rather than how super-awesome we are – probably hadn’t realised they’re also ripping the top off a cold one in memory of a military junta that usurped the legal authority of the colony on the same confused, contested date.

That committee, I vaguely recall – the improvers and do-gooders trying to patriot-shame everyone into remembering that Australia Day was about more than one last piss-up for the summer – had its own antecedents in another committee established in 1915 to encourage the celebration of the 26th as Australia Day.

This, too, had an ulterior motive, however. With the Commonwealth at war as a federated nation for the first time, Canberra needed money. The committee settled on July 30 as the new date of Australia Day, and tied celebrations to fund-raising activities for the war effort. The following year the date moved to July 28.

There is nothing sacred about the current date of January 26. Before the Hawke government lavished a fortune on the Bicentennial, the 26th was an unremarkable public holiday, probably less contested than now because our investment in it was so much smaller. 

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