Peaceful protests calling for a change to the January 26 Australia Day holiday date turned ugly today as police clashed with protesters in Sydney.
After hours of speeches at the Domain in the Sydney CBD, where police told protesters they could gather but not march, a number of protesters were arrested. "If you do the right thing, I'll do the right thing," an officer told an organiser before the arrests began.
NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Mick Willing yesterday warned that police would not hesitate to ensure crowd numbers stayed under 500 in line with Covid-related public health measures. Around 3,000 people turned up in the Sydney CBD, organisers told reporters.
"Do not come in and be part of that public gathering. Find another way to express your views and opinions," Willing said yesterday. "We are all aware that these are sensitive issues and they are very important issues to a lot of people, but we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and we're asking people to abide by those health orders." NSW police are able to issue on-the-spot fines upwards of A$1000 but the penalty for breaching public health orders comes with a fine up to A$11,000 and a six-month jail term.
The annual event has in recent years seen thousands of Australians take to the streets to protest against the country's national holiday.
The Invasion Day rallies call for, among other things, a changing of the date on which Australia Day falls. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the anniversary of the day is not one to celebrate as it marks the start of the dispossession and marginalisation of indigenous Australians.
Reconciliation Australia, the national body focused on reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, said many Aboriginal people wish to celebrate Australian values and freedoms but feel they can't do that on January 26.
"The historical events of January 26 mean that many Australians – indigenous and non-indigenous – perceive it as date that marks the commencement of a long history of violence and trauma," the organisation explains. This is the basis of the argument for changing the date of Australia Day to one all Australians can celebrate.
The debate around changing the date has ramped up significantly in recent years, to the point where it has become a national talking point in the lead-up to January 26 every year.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously described Australia Day as a chance for Australians from "all walks of life, from all backgrounds" to celebrate how far the country has come, but Invasion Day protesters don't accept that description.
The coronavirus pandemic this year saw Victorians unable to gather for an Australia Day rally because it was deemed a public health risk by the state government. But Melbourne City Council did approve an Invasion Day Dawn Service.
Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the seated, 250-capacity service at Kings Domain was "a way of supporting an event that reflects that ancient Australian history".
Thousands still gathered outside Parliament House in Melbourne for a demonstration where a minute of silence was observed.
Invasion Day protests have been planned for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide, Darwin, Hobart, Newcastle, Rockhampton, Lismore, Albury and Lithgow.