On Australia Day 1988 Sydney Harbour, that 'chief amphitheatre of Australian life', was again the centre of attention. This time the extraordinary spectacle attracting some two million people to its shores was the arrival of Tall Ships from around the world and the First Fleet re-enactment. By contrast, the tent city of the Bicentennial Exhibition travelled the country visiting thirty-four cities and towns to involve Australians in the celebration. That year's journey and the Exhibition's scope showed how far planners of the 1988 event had come from those organising the March to Nationhood pageant in Sydney in 1938 and the three months' celebrations there. The federal government, by taking responsibility for the Bicentenary with the setting up of the Australian Bicentennial Authority (ABA) in 1980, signalled a different approach to the NSW government's two-year preparations for the Sesquicentenary.

Even before this event, the federal government had become involved in promoting Australia Day, by taking up the mantle worn by the ANA since the 1880s, especially in Victoria. In 1946 the ANA in Melbourne had begun the transition by prompting the formation of an Australia Day Committee (later known as Australia Day Council), drawn from representatives of many community organisations. Its purpose was to educate the public about the significance of Australia Day. In 1960 it introduced the Australian of the Year award. Similar groups formed in the other states took turns with the Victorian group in acting as the Federal Australia Day Council (FADC). In 1980 the federal government's newly-created National Australia Day Committee, based in the national capital, Canberra, took over that role with the FADC's agreement.

The new Committee, set up to help interested groups make future celebrations 'truly national and Australia-wide', adopted a fresh approach to Australia Day. Its forum for state representatives in 1980 agreed that 26 January 1788 'should be seen as a day of contact, not of conquest…the day which began the fusion of Australians'. The theme, 'ONE LAND, ONE PEOPLE', would best reflect 'the spirit of Australia Day'. The Committee and the federal government were struggling with what respected Committee member, Sir Asher Joel, termed 'the crisis of identity…of establishing an Australian identity which will unite each and every one of us, surmounting all the borders, imaginary or real, of race, creed or class status'. Another member, Graham Allan, chairman of the National Youth Advisory Group, argued that the challenge was convincing the young that Australia Day had meaning, especially when 'we are not precisely sure, ourselves what meaning ought to be attributed to it'. 

FIGURE 18: View of the crowd at new Parliament House, Canberra for the Canberra leg of the Caltex Bicentennial Bike Ride, ca 1988 — a contrast to the Australian Natives' Association's wheel race in 1897. Source: nla.pic-an24526897, National Library of Australia

At the 1981 forum with the theme, 'ONE NATION — ONE FUTURE', speakers looked for ways Australians could find unity in diversity. The composition of Australia's population had changed dramatically since the end of World War II with fewer British people wanting to migrate and increasing numbers of immigrants coming from Europe and later other parts of the world. For a country which had taken pride in being British and white, the change was remarkable. Between 1970 and 1990 the percentage of immigrants in Australia born in the British Isles dropped from 47.3 to 19.4. At the same time Aborigines were pressing ahead in their campaign for citizens' rights, encouraged by the passing of the referendum in 1967 which gave the federal government power to legislate on Aboriginal matters. Radical Aborigines, angered by the federal government's rejection of their land rights, set up a tent embassy in front of Parliament House on the evening of Australia Day 1972 to protest against being treated as outcasts in their own country. The Aboriginal flag designed by Harold Thomas the previous year became a powerful symbol, not just for the embassy but other Aboriginal organisations and Aboriginal people generally.

National symbols were preoccupying the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser.  He acknowledged at the 1981 forum that 'we cannot expect new symbols of our national awareness to take a grip overnight'. His government was wrestling with the transition in national anthems from Britain's, God Save the Queen, to Australia's Advance Australia Fair (as a national tune, not an anthem), a transition not completed until Bob Hawke's Labor government had it proclaimed as the national anthem in 1984. Even then God Save the Queen was retained as the Royal Anthem for particular occasions. Many Australians (32 per cent) also wanted a new flag, 26 per cent of them, one without the Union Jack. Ausflag, established in 1981, led the search for such a flag. The Australian National Flag Association, set up by the RSL in 1983, opposed that search.

RL Harry, former ambassador to the UN, had acknowledged at the 1981 forum that some delegates thought that 'gratitude for, and loyalty to, British origins and institutions' should be part of Australia Day celebrations. But the challenge he posed was to find a 'balance between national unity and cultural diversity' which would allow Aborigines to turn Australia Day from a day of mourning into one of rejoicing. Promoting love of country through Australia Day was to pave the way for Australians' involvement in the bicentennial year, with the Committee, and its state or territory — and where appropriate regional — counterparts working alongside the ABA structure. The work continued after the Committee became a Commonwealth funded Council in 1984 with state, territory and Commonwealth nominees. The Council moved its base to Sydney (where the ABA was established) and encouraged links with the corporate sector through project sponsorship.

For the Authority, finding a theme acceptable to the federal government for 1988 proved difficult: 'Living Together', which acknowledged the diversity of Australian society, became, at the insistence of the Fraser Coalition government, 'the Australian achievement'. The change to the Hawke Labor government in 1983, allowed the ABA to return to its original theme.  With criticism of this theme from conservatives, changes in the Authority's leadership, and the adoption of the theme 'Celebration of a Nation' for the hard sell by advertising agencies, the Authority seemed to lose interest in encouraging Australians to reflect on their history. It presided instead over 'the greatest one-day spectacle Australia has ever seen - a specifically Sydney spectacle'. The Bicentennial Exhibition, which had the potential to prompt critical reflection, seems to have puzzled rather than stimulated its viewers.34  But there were many other projects (figure 18), including ones intended to last well beyond 1988, such as the new Parliament House in Canberra. Another was Australians: a Historical Library, a ten-volume set, the result of a remarkable collaboration of historians, economists, archaeologists, geographers and others over ten years.

Aborigines declared their opposition to the celebrations of 26 January 1988 with land rights flags at Lady Macquarie's Point on Sydney Harbour, the Bondi Pavilion protest concert, and the gathering of Aboriginal marchers and white supporters at Belmore Park. Posters summarised their protest: 'WHITE AUSTRALIA HAS A BLACK HISTORY — DON'T CELEBRATE 1988'; 'AUSTRALIA DAY = INVASION DAY 1988'. Some of the rights sought by Aboriginal protesters in 1938 had been achieved, but there was still great inequality between Aborigines and other Australians. Building on the protest of 1938, the events on 26 January in 1988 developed new traditions, especially the Survival Day Concert, which from 1992 took place each year at La Perouse, later moving to Waverley Oval near Bondi. By that time the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had revealed just how devastating the effect of white colonisation on Aboriginal people had been. Responding to the findings, the federal government established the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (Australia) in an attempt to bring Australians together in addressing the problems of the past and finding a way forward for the future.

Next - Australia Day: A day for all Australians?