Less than 40% of Australians know what actually happened on January 26 to make it our national day

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With a bitter political debate currently underway over changing the date of Australia Day, a new national survey has revealed that nearly two-thirds of the country’s citizens may not know the historical reason why January 26 was chosen as the day to mark the occasion.

The survey of 1,417 Australians last December by the left-leaning Australia Institute reveals shocking levels of ignorance about the country’s history and the inspiration behind the choice for the country’s national day.

That lack knowledge about the country’s white history was especially prevalent among Labor voters, with just 34% knowing the First Fleet landed in Sydney Cove, while 41% of Coalition and One Nation voters chose the correct answer and 40% of Greens voters.

The respondents were asked “What Australian historical event occurred on 26 January?” and given a randomised list of 11 options to choose from.

Just 38% chose the correct answer, with “don’t know” being the second most popular choice at 14%, followed by the First Fleet establishing a colony (that didn’t happen until 7 February, 1788).

While just under half (49%) chose an answer relating to the First Fleet, that means the other half didn’t make the connection with the beginning of Australia’s European history, with 19% choosing events that occurred before the First Fleet’s arrival, including Europeans first landing in Australia (8%) and Captain Cook sighting Australia (7%).

Interestingly people from NSW were more likely to choose the correct answer (43%) than residents of Victoria (31%) and Queensland (37%).

The reasons people chose for why they believe Australia Day is held on January 26. Source: The Australia Institute

While 12% chose historical events relating the country’s independence, a surprising 2% said it marked Australia becoming a republic — something that hasn’t actually happened and another major ongoing political and public debate.

While no One Nation supporters chose “republic” as an answer, 3% of ALP, Greens and Coalition supporters picked it was the reason for Australia Day.

Meanwhile, more than three-quarters (77%) of those surveyed were under the misapprehension that Australia Day had always been on January 26 — the date was first adopted by the states in 1935 and it’s less than 30 years since all states and territories made the Australia Day public holiday on the specific date rather than the nearest Monday, which perhaps explains why 43% of respondents agreed when ask if “Australia Day should always be on a Friday or a Monday so we get an Australia Day long weekend”. Forty-four percent disagreed.

What reason would you chose for when Australia Day is held? Source: The Australia Institute

The Australia Institute’s deputy director Ebony Bennett said the results show that while nearly all Australians consider a national day important “most people are laid back about the date we celebrate on”.

“The polling shows that most Australians don’t know what historical event Australia Day commemorates and most people are not aware it wasn’t always celebrated on this date,” she said.

“Perhaps that’s why more than half of Australians say they don’t really mind when we hold Australia Day, as long as we do.”

Less than a quarter (23%) chose the current date from a range of options when asked what day would be best, and interestingly, many who identified the First Fleet as the reason behind January 26 for the celebration did not think it was the best date for Australia Day, however the country is evenly divided when it comes to the issue of indigenous sensibilities.

While nearly half (49%) agreed Australia Day should not be on a day that is offensive to Indigenous Australians, 36% disagreed, yet only 37% agreed January 26 is offensive to Indigenous Australians, while 46% disagreed.

Source: The Australia Institute

But exactly when fractures opinions with just over a third of respondents (35%) say a date relating to independence was a better option.

While 18% chose when Australia was named “Australia” as their preference, which of those dates would be the next issue. The term first gained popularity via the 1814 book “A Voyage to Terra Australis” by navigator Matthew Flinders before NSW governor Lachlan Macquarie wrote to his UK superiors in December 1817 recommending Australia be officially adopted as the country’s name. It took the British Admiralty another seven years to sign off on the recommendation in 1824.

But with 10% of respondents supporting “Australia becoming a republic” perhaps it’s a matter of waiting.

At least January 26 remains significant to India, which calls its Republic Day, recognising the date the Indian Constitution came into effect, ending British rule, in 1950.

Bennett says the national conversation about Australia Day “is an opportunity for all of us to learn about and reflect on Australia’s history, especially the more than 50,000 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, and to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be in the future”.

What’s clear is that for now, nothing will change, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saying this week that he was “disappointed by those who want to change the date of Australia Day”.

Taking aim at Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who has launched a campaign to change the date and believes it will happen within a decade, the PM said those pushing for a new date are “seeking to take a day that unites Australia and Australians and turn it into one that will divide us”.

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