'Pay the rent': Invasion Day rallies around Australia protest against 26 January celebrations

Luke Henriques-Gomes
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Thousands have gathered for Invasion Day rallies across the country to protest against 26 January celebrations and to call on Australians to “pay the rent”.

Demonstrators met in all Australian capital cities as part of a protest movement that supporters said shows growing dissatisfaction with the national holiday, which marks the beginning of British colonialism through the arrival of the first fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788.

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At the protest in Melbourne, thousands of people held signs with messages such as “Grand Theft Australia” and “White Oz has a Blak History” as they marched from the steps of Victorian parliament to Flinders Street station.

“This is a day of mourning for our people,” Uncle Robbie Thorpe, a Krautungalung man of the Gunnai Nation, told the crowd.

Thorpe, who expressed hope Sunday would be one of the “last invasion days”, noted people had gathered for a dawn service earlier to commemorate the thousands of First Nations people killed in the frontier wars and in massacres.

The Invasion Day rally in Melbourne. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

“We need to heal the ancestors’ spirit for this country to move forward … When that happens this place will change.”

Pay the rent, a concept originally developed in the 1970s by the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation, was reprised for Sunday’s protests as organisers collected donations to help First Nations families pay for funeral costs.

“Whether you live here, or in Gippsland, or over in Meanjin in Brisbane, you live on Aboriginal land,” Gunnai and Gunditjmara woman Meriki Onus told the crowd in Melbourne. “You have an obligation to pay rent to the local blackfellas of that area.”

In Sydney, protesters gathered at Hyde Park before more marching through the CBD, while a Brisbane protest began at Queens Garden before concluding at Musgrave Park, south of the CBD. There, the opening of demonstrations were briefly marred by a confrontation and a scuffle after a man walked on stage.

Water warrior Bruce Shillingsworth, a Muruwari and Budjiti man, told the crowd in Sydney that First Nations people had taken care of the land for thousands of years.

NRL player Latrell Mitchell ensures his voice can be heard during the Invasion Day rally in Sydney. Photograph: Don Arnold/Getty Images

“What what have we done in the last 250 years. Think about it,” he said, noting the state of the Murray-Darling River, the lack of access to clean drinking water for some Indigenous communities, and the bushfires now ravaging the country.

As demonstrators in Melbourne marched towards Flinders Street station, dozens of counter-protesters brandished signs saying “Australia Day should never be changed” .

Ky-ya Nicholson-Ward, 17, who spoke during the Welcome to Country in Melbourne, said she believed many people who celebrated Australia Day were not aware of the 60,000-plus years of history before 1788.

She argued that given Germans did not celebrate Hitler, “why do we celebrate James Cook?”, and noted that in the US, states had changed their Christopher Columbus Day to Indigenous Day.

“Why can’t we do this considering we already copy everything else America does,” she said.

Related: 26 January, the ultimate day for toxic patriotism, is the perfect day to call for change | Luke Pearson

Nicholson-Ward also argued that the recent bushfire crisis could have been avoided if leaders had listened to the Indigenous communities, a reference to cultural burning practices that First Nations people say has been effective in the Top End.

In Sydney, the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, offered a similar sentiment at an Australia Day ceremony on Sunday morning.

“These devastating bushfires encourage us as a community to reflect on Aboriginal practices that sustained this land for millennia,” she said.

The Invasion Day rally in Brisbane. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

Linda Burney, Labor’s Indigenous Australians spokeswoman, said the country appeared to be at an “impasse” on the question of Australia Day.

“But I believe we are mature enough as a nation to face a proper discussion about it,” she said in an opinion piece published in the Daily Telegraph.

“On the one hand – right or wrong – is that many Australians are simply unaware of the historical and political context of the date,” she said.

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“On the other, if we understand the history of Australia Day we can understand why it is such a painful day for Indigenous Australians – this is the notion of ‘truth-telling’.”

Lidia Thorpe, a Djab Wurrung and Gunditjmara woman and former Victorian Greens MP, organised the dawn service at Kings Domain. In her speech in Melbourne, she was critical of the annual Australia Day Festival, which is held at that site.

“At 5.30am this morning, at Kings Domain where they have the Australia Day party, we have 38 nations represented through skeletal remains from museums all over the world,” said Thorpe, to cries of “shame”.

“At the very place that they are going to have their party. They are dancing on our graves. And we’ve had enough.”