Someone Else’s Shoes: A Simple Guide To Understanding Why January 26 Is So Offensive


Sometimes Australians say silly things to avoid discussing the big black elephant in the room. Chris Graham provides a simple list of rebuttals.


Everyone’s upset and just needs to calm down.

You’re upset because Aboriginal people are asking you to change the date of a holiday you’ve only been celebrating nationally for 23 years (since 1994). Aboriginal people are upset because you’re celebrating a date that marks the slaughter and dispossession of their people, who lived peacefully for 70,000 years. Which is do you think is more upsetting?


I don’t know what people are getting upset about.

50, 40 or even 20 years ago, you might accept that a lack of understanding around the insensitivity of celebrating Australia Day was just garden variety ignorance. But there’s really no excuse for that level of ignorance in this day and age – not from the general population, and particularly not from the media and our political leaders. The longer this drags on – the longer we refuse to address this issue – the more and more it starts to look like determined ignorance. And that’s not a nice look for a nation of people.


Why can’t we just all get along.

If I came to your house, killed your family and stole your property, then refused to properly acknowledge what happened, and had a huge party on the anniversary every year to celebrate, do you think there was ever any chance we could ‘just get along’? Particularly if you continually refused to discuss what occurred. Forgiveness is possible, but not without first acknowledging what occurred.




Aboriginal people don’t have to participate in Australia Day. They can go to work or do something else.

Our Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce said this on radio this morning. Ask yourself this simple question: Do you think Australia’s national day should be inclusive, and able to be embraced by all Australians? If your answer is no, you’re a fascist (or Barnaby Joyce)… you should probably get that looked into. If your answer is yes, then no reasonable person could expect that date could be January 26, because it marks the slaughter and dispossession of someone else.


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The Lamb Ad is just a bit of fun.

If there’s one thing Australians probably shouldn’t ‘have a bit of fun’ with it’s the slaughter and dispossession of someone else. Particularly when non-Aboriginal people have been the beneficiaries of that slaughter. Pretending that ‘Australia Day’ is about inclusiveness – when it marks the slaughter and dispossession of the ancestors of more than half a million Australians – is like pretending that the Holocaust wasn’t about


I didn’t do it – why should I lose my national day?

You may not have slaughtered Aboriginal people, or even dispossessed them, but you sure as hell benefitted from it. You live in the ‘lucky country’ at someone else’s expense, and that’s something worth acknowledging. The most important thing to remember is that acknowledging it costs you nothing.


I should be able to celebrate January 26 if I want to.

Of course you should – it’s a free country. But you might like to think about why you do, and in particular you might like to think about how you would feel if the shoe was on the other foot. Should I be able to celebrate the date your daughter was raped and murdered? The date your whole family was wiped out? The date you lost your land or family home? The date we took your kids off you because we considered you an inferior human being? The date [insert your own personal tragedy here]. I don’t celebrate those things – and neither does our nation – because it’s obviously deeply offensive and insensitive.




It’s time to move on

Generally, you don’t get to tell the victims of something when it’s time to move on. For example, should we say to Jews, ‘Oh the Holocaust was ages ago, it’s time to move on’. What about victims of the recent Bourke Street murders? Is it time for them to move on yet? The fact is, the victims of a crime get to determine when they move on. The beneficiaries of that crime – whether they participated knowingly or not – do not get to determine when it’s time to move on. That’s a fundamental principle of our society.


We’ve already dealt with all this.

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was first established on January 26, 1972. Protestors were demanding things like national land rights, treaty and the recognition of their enduring sovereignty (that is, their recognition that they are a separate and distinct people, with their own laws, culture and customs). None of this has ever been addressed. There is no national land rights. There is no treaty. There is not recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty. The truth is, we’ve simply actively ignored the cries of Aboriginal people for generations. We’ve dealt with none of it.


The people protesting aren’t even real Aborigines.

This is a particularly problematic – but very stubborn – Australian trope. Consider this: You can’t on the one hand say, ‘They’re not even real Aborigines’ and then say, ‘And that’s why Aborigines need to move on’. You can’t have it both ways.


How many times do we have to say ‘sorry’?

Sure… equally, how many times to we have to say ‘thank you’. You might like to think a bit about why we stop every year in April to say thank you to the Anzacs. Can you imagine the national outcry if our Deputy Prime Minister said, ‘We’ve already said thank you. The wars were years ago. It’s time to move on’. You also might like to think about whether or not embracing one (thank you) and not the other (sorry) is a little hypocritical.


I think the date should move to May 8… ie ‘maate’.

At least you’re thinking about an alternative date, which is a good thing. But for a national day to be embraced, it requires more than just supporting a date which doesn’t really reflect our national character. You might want Australia to be all about mateship, but the fact is it’s not. We weren’t very good ‘mates’ to the people already living here. We’re not very good ‘mates’ to people fleeing wars (which we helped start) who we then jail for the crime of seeking asylum. What really needs to happen is a respectful national conversation about the realities of our past, and the best way forward. Those conversations must include Aboriginal people.


No date will ever be acceptable to ‘them’.

That’s actually partly true – some Aboriginal people will never celebrate Australia Day, no matter what day it’s held, because of what it represents. So the only real alternative is to celebrate a date that marks a resetting of the relationship. In New Zealand, they celebrate Waitangi Day to mark a national Treaty. That’s not to suggest relations in Aotearoa are perfect – they’re not. But the date does provide room for all Kiwis to participate in if they choose.


The upshot

Aboriginal people and a growing number of non Aboriginal supporters are never going to accept January 26 as our national day. It’s simply never going to happen. That means we can either have this fight every year, or we can start a respectful national discussion about a way forward. One is the response of a mature, compassionate, confident nation. The other is the response of an immature, divided nation that refuses to confront the truth of its past. Which nation do you want to pass on to your children and grandchildren?

* Chris Graham is the editor of New Matilda. He Facebook’s here, blogs here, and tweets here

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.