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Australia Day Impacts How We Are Perceived Internationally

Afeeya Akhand | Renee Cremer

2023 Invasion Day Rally - Naarm (Melbourne). Image credit: Matt Hrkac via Flickr.

Whether you celebrate it or not, Australia Day is our most controversial public holiday. Not only does Australia Day pose significant questions about how we view our national identity, but it has a bearing on how we are perceived internationally, especially in the wake of the failed Voice referendum.

Since 1938, January 26 has been recognised by First Nations people as a Day of Mourning by marking the first day of British colonisation of the Australian continent. Although the meaning of Australia Day has evolved over time by acknowledging First Nations history and celebrating cultural diversity, it remains a contentious holiday for many. Invasion Day protests are becoming more common, dozens of local councils have opted out of conducting citizenship ceremonies on January 26 and corporations such as Big W and Woolworths have stopped stocking Australia Day merchandise.

The divisive domestic discourse about Australia Day has been accompanied by increasing international attention in recent years. International media outlets including Reuters, CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and NPR have all negatively reported on the issues surrounding Australia Day, with news headlines often using phrases such as ‘Invasion Day’ and ‘day of mourning’ to characterise January 26.

Furthermore, like pressing a hot iron on sunburn, this year’s Australia Day comes in the wake of the failed Voice referendum, which likewise attracted international attention. In the leadup to the Referendum, UN human rights experts urged Australia to ‘overcome the colonial legacy of systemic discrimination and inequalities and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General stated that a Yes vote could increase Australia’s ‘credibility on the international stage’. The unsuccessful outcome of the vote led to international outcry from many, with the UN Human Commissioner for Human Rights expressing his deep disappointment through a press release.

One factor explaining the international interest on the plight of First Nations Australians is due to the commonalities in systemic disadvantage experienced by First Nations groups around the world. For example, Indigenous women are starkly overrepresented in prison populations. In New Zealand and Canada, 60% and 48% of each respective country’s prison population are Indigenous women. These disparities are likewise apparent in Australia in that Indigenous women are 25 times more likely to be in Australian prisons than non-Indigenous women.


Slowly but surely, the current Labor Government has started to adopt constructive steps toward recognising the importance of First Nations history in foreign policy settings, having last year appointed the inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People. The Ambassador will be leading the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Office for First Nations International Engagement, which was established in December. With First Nations trade and investment at the forefront of this initiative, it will be vital to evaluate its impact and how it contributes to Australia’s international relations.

The self-determination of Indigenous people in Australia is another area of focus for the government and is being led by Yawuru politician Uncle Patrick Dodson in collaboration with the Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. Senator Dodson has recently delivered the report on implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), which sets out the inalienable rights of Indigenous people under international law. However, Senator Dodson’s departure from the Senate on January 26 this year will most certainly leave a gap in the government’s efforts to advance Indigenous self-determination.

In light of the referendum outcome, as well as the Australian Government’s’ domestic failure to implement international mechanisms for the betterment of First Nations people, finding a harmonious and productive path forward that furthers Indigenous rights in Australia is key. Furthering meaningful discourse on issues such as Australia Day will showcase to Australia’s international counterparts that we are truly committed to respecting human rights and in achieving our commonly expressed catchphrase of being the most successful multicultural society in the world.

It is a matter for Australians how we resolve the issue of Australia Day. But we must understand that a debate plagued by caustic and divisive political rhetoric is not only harmful to First Nations people and the social fabric of our nation, it will also be deeply damaging to our reputation internationally, and in particular in our region.

As Australia increasingly seeks an elevated role in the Indo-Pacific as a trusted partner of choice, the first step is to show that we are a united and cohesive society committed to the human rights of all Australians including First Nations Australians.

Afeeya Akhand is a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute based on Ngunnawal land.

Renee Cremer is a proud Yuin woman and Chief Executive Officer of Young Australians in International Affairs. 

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