It seems that a growing number of Australians are questioning whether 26 January is the right or best day on which to celebrate our national birthday. A prime factor for many of those advocating change is the view taken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people that the date currently observed offers nothing worthy of special commemoration, since it actually marks the commencement of British settlement of Australia in 1788 and the start of a bloody process which over the following century and a half resulted in native people’s dispossession of their lands. It is not hard to understand why critics of current arrangements might choose to refer to 26 January as ‘invasion’ day, ‘mourning’ day, and even ‘survival’ day!

Whatever view is taken of such arguments, it deserves to be noted up front that there is, in fact, nothing specially appropriate about 26 January in Australia’s national history, since the events remembered in connection with that date specifically refer to the foundation of the colony of New South Wales alone. Not all states (the former colonies) of Australia take their origins from the shared history of that colony’s foundation; even though Sydney became the base from which practically all subsequent British expansion was made, many of Australia’s states have origins of settlement which differ from the common pattern.

Even focusing on events of January 1788 in the Botany Bay-Port Jackson area which later became broadly known as Sydney presents a quite confusing picture. For instance, the first fleet bringing the personnel who were to establish a British penal colony in Australia did not arrive as a single coordinated group. Instead they sailed into Botany Bay in dribs and drabs over three days (18-20 January). Because Captain Arthur Phillip, the Governor designate for the colony, did not like what he saw at Botany Bay, the personnel in the ships were mostly not landed while Phillip took off in a small boat to check out the suitability of Port Jackson (so named by Cook 18 years earlier although he did not enter the harbour there). Once Phillip returned on 23 January, arrangements were put in hand to begin moving the planned settlement further north the following day.

This plan, too, was delayed by the surprise appearance of two mystery ships which turned out to belong to a French scientific expedition led by La Perouse, so that it was not until 26 and 27 January that all the ships of the British fleet made the transfer. And while Phillip made do with a quick ceremony to raise the British flag and proclaim British sovereignty over the eastern half of the Australian continent on the morning of the 26th, we have from Marine Lieutenant Watkin Tench’s later published account that the full formal ceremony of reading public commissions and taking possession of the colony’s site was not done until 7 February!

It becomes at least understandable that the citizens of New South Wales later regarded 26 January as their founding day—their ‘Anniversary Day’ as it was still called in 1900—with a range of celebrations conducted in Sydney, the main event being an annual regatta on the harbour. It seems that it was not until 1935 that all states joined NSW in celebrating the 26 January as a shared milestone, and not until 1994 that a public holiday was declared across the nation to mark Australia Day.

So, if it is agreed that 26 January is not really appropriate for celebrating the national birthday, what date would be suitable—without giving continuing offence to our indigenous population? In reality there is only one logical choice, and that is 1 January: the day in 1901 on which the Commonwealth of Australia was formally proclaimed at a ceremony in Sydney. A crowd of 60,000 people gathered in Sydney’s Centennial Park around a temporary pavilion, specially constructed for the occasion, to hear and watch the first Governor-General and first federal ministry sworn in at 1 pm. Surely this date, and none other, properly marks the moment when Australia began its identity as a separate nation.

Of interest is the fact that the Federation Pavilion, an octagonal, domed structure 14 metres high and richly decorated with bas-relief castings of native flora and the imperial coat of arms, was mainly made of plaster of Paris. This quickly fell into a state of disrepair as the plaster degraded, with the result that by 1903 the decision was made to remove it from the site altogether. What I did not realise until recently was that the structure was not simply disposed of, but was sold to the city council of Concord. The pavilion was moved to the Sydney suburb of Cabarita, and over the years it has been painted and added to ‘for aesthetics and safety’. The point is that this real life reminder of the great event on 1 January 1901 still survives.