The sails of the Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House carried images recognising Nanbarry, Barangaroo, Pemulwuy and Patyegarang. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS
  • public holiday

Unity in focus as Australians mark their national day

William Ton January 26, 2024

A rocking concert and fireworks show have marked the end of another Australia Day filled with new beginnings, ceremonies and mass protests.

Thousands lined the Sydney harbour foreshore to revel in performances from Australia’s biggest names including Dami Im, Casey Donovan, Kate Miller-Heidke and William Barton belting out classics from an all-Aussie songbook.

Glittering fireworks and laser lightshows had been prepared to light up the sky to close out the night while jetskis, tugboats and sailboats were in formation in the water.

In his final Australia Day address, Governor-General David Hurley urged people to focus on the things that unite.

He reflected on the words of noted Queensland poet and novelist David Malouf.

“Australia is still revealing itself to us and we are all part of its evolving story,” he said.

Governor General David Hurley
 Outgoing Governor-General David Hurley has urged the nation to focus on the things that unite. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

“That journey and how we deal with other issues where there are strongly held, differing views in our community, will help determine the Australia that reveals itself.”

Millions of people across the nation celebrated, commemorated or protested on January 26, the day Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788.

The Sydney Opera House was illuminated with images of Indigenous historical figures and Melbourne hosted its annual smoking ceremony and yarning circle to mark the start of Australia Day.

Images in recognition of Indigenous “trailblazers” Nanbarry, Barangaroo, Pemulwuy and Patyegarang lit up the opera house sails.

Anthony Albanese said the national day was for all Australians to reflect, respect and celebrate the values, beliefs and freedoms we share.

The prime minister made special mention of the communities battling natural disasters and praised those who show the best of the Australian character by helping people in need.

Invasion Day Rally in Brisbane
 January 26 marks a day of mourning for many Indigenous Australians. Image by Jono Searle/AAP PHOTOS 

The fairness, democracy and community harmony the nation treasures is not down to luck, he said in his Australia Day message. 

“What we have is not an accident. It is our Australian values in action, the product of generations of hard work, sacrifice and co-operation.

“Indeed, when we look at everything happening around the world today, all of us can be proud of the way that Australia’s diversity strengthens our unity.”

Opposition immigration and citizenship spokesman Dan Tehan said it was a day to unite as equals and celebrate the diversity of cultures living peacefully.

But January 26 marks a day of mourning for many Indigenous Australians.

Smoking ceremony at Melbourne's Alfred Square.
 Australia Day in Melbourne began with a smoking ceremony at Alfred Square. Image by Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS 

Tens of thousands of protesters turned out for Invasion Day and Survival Day rallies calling for change, providing a visual reminder of opposition to the public holiday.

In Melbourne, cheers rang out when a eulogy was read out for the “long overdue and painfully anticipated death” of Australia Day.

The toppling of a statue of Captain Cook, which was cut off at the feet and graffitied in St Kilda on Thursday was celebrated.

The second day of Australia’s cricket test against the West Indies had to be placed in a brief lockdown after protesters entered Brisbane’s Gabba.

More than 22,000 migrants from more than 150 countries can now call Australia home as they made their pledge to the nation across hundreds of citizenship ceremonies.

Ferrython in Sydney Harbour on Australia Day
 Sydney’s newest public ferries battled it out for line honours in the annual Ferrython race. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

But the day was marred after a group of 60 neo-Nazis wearing black balaclavas and brandishing Australian flags and shields were stopped by police after they swarmed a Sydney train.

Passengers were evacuated from the carriage and six Neo-Nazis were arrested.

In the sky, spectators around the nation were treated to spectacular skyshows as air force planes staged flypasts throughout the day.

Sydney residents got to glimpse the air force’s Roulettes first return to the harbour city’s skies in a over decade.

On the water, the city’s newest public ferries battled it out for line honours in the annual Ferrython race.

Despite the range of opinions for the day, the outgoing governor-general can’t help but be optimistic for the future.

“Whatever our challenges and divides, we’re a good people, a kind people, united and bound together.”