A senior government minister made an embarrassing blunder about what happened on January 26

Cameron Spencer/ Getty Images.Oi!
  • The debate over Australia Day being held on January 26 flared up again after the Prime Minster said moving the annual celebration was “indulgent self-loathing”.
  • The Nationals deputy leader joined the debate mistakenly saying it was the day ‘Captain Cook stepped ashore’.
  • Cooked landed in Botany Bay in April 1770.
  • The First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove on January 26, 18 years later – an historical fact only a minority Australians can cite when asked.

New Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison kicked off an early start to the annual debate over Australia Day and changing the date when he accused advocates of “indulgent self-loathing” after Byron Shire Council, in Northern NSW, decided to move its celebrations to January 25.

Today Morrison was suggesting a new national day to honour indigenous Australians and remember the country’s “deep scars … in relation to the treatment and experience of indigenous Australians”.

He wants to retain Australia Day on January 26 to acknowledge the day “Australia changed forever”.

The debate, now a ritual as Australian as a summer of sunburn, barbecues, blowflies and cricket, has flared up into another cultural bushfire today, leading Nationals deputy leader and senior government minister Bridget McKenzie to weigh in.

Not everything went according to plan, especially when Senator McKenzie explained that it was important that Australia Day be celebrated on January 26 because “the reality is, that is when the course of our nation changed forever. When, you know, Captain Cook stepped ashore”.

Except he didn’t.

Lieutenant James Cook became the first European to step ashore on Australia’s east coast on 29 April, 1770, at Kurnell, Botany Bay’s southern shore. He then skipped past Sydney Harbour a week later, naming it Port Jackson, and didn’t put his feet on land again until May in Queensland at the town now known as Seventeen Seventy.

Some 18 years later, Governor Arthur Phillip turned up, with the First Fleet’s 11 ships arriving in Botany Bay between January 18 and 20. But Cook’s glowing testimony turned out to be the 18th Century version of a Tripadvisor review, with Phillip finding the landscape hostile to his fledgling penal colony. So he took a posse in small boats north on January 21 with a bloke named John Hunter, decided Port Jackson could work – “the finest harbour in the world” he wrote in a dispatch to the UK – and sailed back to Botany on January 23, 1788.

The next day, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, French ships on a scientific research voyage under Jean-François de La Pérouse, popped up on the horizon.

At that point Phillip, a veteran combatant against the French, hotfooted it north to stake Great Britain’s claim. He strode ashore at what he called Sydney Cove in honour of the British Home Secretary on January 26, 1788 – and claimed formal possession of the continent with a few officers, drinking to the King’s health and success to the settlement. It happened on the same day La Pérouse made it into Botany Bay for a six-week refit of his ships before they sailed off and were never seen again (the shipwrecks were later found in the Solomon Islands).

But McKenzie’s mistake over who did what, when, is an understandable one. A 2017 survey of Australians found that around 20% think January 26 is all about Cook. A majority don’t know what the day actually celebrates, although 70% supported the idea of an Australia Day.

The survey gave people six options and just 43% chose the First Fleet’s landing at Sydney Cove as the correct answer. Another 17% thought it celebrated Federation – a moment that came on 1 January, 1901.

One Nation’s Pauline Hanson offered a little retro-perspective with a meme declaring “Jan 26 will always be Australia Day” as she scrubbed flags clean on a washboard, looking like Mother from Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection.

The concept of Australia Day first kicked off a little over a century ago during WWI as a fundraiser for the war effort. It was held on 30 July, 1915. The following year, it moved to July 28.

Various states held celebrations at multiple days of the year to mark a national day, but the one thing the Commonwealth came together to agree on in the mid-20th Century was that the Monday closest to January 26 should be a holiday for a long-weekend.

It wasn’t until 1994 – just two years before Hanson was elected to the Senate for the first time – that Australia Day on January 26 became a national public holiday.

The current version of the flag, incidentally, with a seven-pointed Commonwealth Star, didn’t arrive until 23 February, 1908. The six-pointed star version first flew on 3 September, 1901 – the day now known as Australian National Flag Day.

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