Australia Day: Alice's role in it


25110 Alex Nelson by-line2604 Alex Australia Day Reverend Harry Griffiths OKWhile our country endures another round of self-flagellation over the suitability of January 26 as Australia’s national day, it will probably surprise many to learn that Alice Springs and the Northern Territory played prominent roles in the history of this public holiday.
It so happens that in this year, 2019, the date of January 26 – Australia Day – falls on a Saturday. In typical laid back Aussie fashion, the national public holiday has been shifted to the following Monday (January 28) to make it a long weekend.
Heaven forbid we miss out on a public holiday during the week!
This is a throwback to the old nation-wide convention of always holding the Australia Day public holiday on the Monday following January 26, unless the date coincided with that weekday.
This was the national practice until 1994 when it was agreed by all states and territories that the public holiday should occur on the official Australia Day date, irrespective of the day of the week it occurred – except on weekends!
That statement must be qualified – the Northern Territory preceded the whole nation a full decade when the NT Government declared January 26 would be the fixed date for the Australia Day holiday from 1984 onwards.
Now long forgotten and overlooked, why did the NT lead the way on this issue?
For that answer, it’s necessary to go back to January 26, 1976, which happened that year to be on a Monday. It was thus one of those infrequent occasions when the Australia Day holiday occurred on the official date.
This coincidence seems to have been the trigger for a campaign begun by the Apex Club of Central Australia to promote the historical significance of this public holiday.
By year’s end, this Apex Club (it was the second in the Centre, the first was the Apex Club of Alice Springs started in 1959) embarked on a local public awareness campaign to raise the profile of Australia Day. The president, Keith Hyde – a senior agronomist based at AZRI – was the public spokesman on behalf of the club.
In early January 1977 the campaign was launched with the release of promotional materials, film shows, and an essay competition for school-aged children with prizes divided between primary and secondary class levels.
There ended up being three winners of the essay competition, with two secondary students awarded equal first prize – all the winners were girls, and two were sisters!
Following the success of the local campaign, the Apex Club of Central Australia proceeded to take their project to a much higher level.
The club prepared a motion for promoting Australia Day, including suggestions that “Apex should ensure that the Prime Minister’s address on Australia Day achieves national significance.
“The national press, radio and TV media should be coordinated to recognise Australia Day. A handbook should be published, and large companies should be involved in the promotions.
“On the club level, pioneers could be invited to speak at dinner meetings.” (Centralian Advocate, 14/4/77)
This motion was progressively accepted in Apex district and zone conventions, and finally gained approval at the Apex national convention at Southport, Tasmania, in early April 1977.
It was reported: “This means that all Apex Clubs in Australia will now carry out special promotions through mass media and other means for the national day each year. The activity will fall under the citizenship portfolio of the association.” (Advocate, 14/4/77).
In the 1970s, Australia Day did not loom large in the public consciousness; however, Anzac Day certainly did, and for several years there was a sustained protest movement by the political left to abolish this national holiday.
April 1977 was no exception so, coincidentally the same month Apex began a national campaign to promote Australia Day, the Reverend Harry Griffiths (pictured at top) returned to Alice Springs to give the public address at the memorial on top of Anzac Hill on April 25.
Griffiths, then 81, and his wife Dorothy had lived in the Alice from 1932 to ’52, and were immensely influential citizens of the town. A veteran of the British Army during the First World War, Harry Griffiths was an active member of the RSL in Alice Springs in the 1930s (at the time the only social club in the town).
Griffiths was instrumental in establishing the RSL memorial on top of Anzac Hill, designing the obelisk and dedicating it on Anzac Day, 1934.
Griffiths served as the local RSL branch president during the latter 1930s, during which time he succeeded in establishing the town’s first recreational reserve between Anzac Hill and Todd River, known now as the Anzac Precinct including the oval and old high school.
Ever forthright, Harry Griffiths let fly in his address on top of Anzac Hill: “People who want to abolish Anzac Day were nitwits who don’t know what they are talking about.
“Mr Griffiths said Anzac Day wasn’t glorifying war, as some people claimed, but remembering the war dead.
“Freedom, peace and a good standard of living were not the result of union action, collective bargaining, nor the work of politicians or parsons – but a big price had been paid for them by those who laid down their lives on the altar of sacrifice.”
Referring to the obelisk he designed and dedicated in 1934, Griffiths declared: “Not only RSL members should be proud of the Anzac monument, but people of Alice Springs generally should treasure it. It should be a reminder to them of the sacrifices that allowed a life of freedom.” (Centralian Advocate, 28/4/77).
2604 Alex Australia Day 3 One Nation OKIt’s almost as if a baton exchanged hands that month, with controversy about Anzac Day soon to shift attention instead to Australia Day.
In 1978 celebrations for Australia Day in Alice Springs were ramped up. The two Apex clubs cooperated with the aid of the Alice Springs Folk Society to hold a free concert in front of the Commonwealth Government Centre (now the Alice Springs Police Station) during Monday evening, January 30.
A crowd of several hundred attended the event and it was considered a great success. The Folk Society gave a rousing performance, notably Dave Evans, Bob Barford, Scott Balfour, and CSIRO scientist Barney Foran, who also entertained with renditions of poetry.
The same format was presented the next year with an Australiana-themed folk music and poetry concert at the Commonwealth Centre on Monday, January 29, 1979.
The public was reminded: “And if Apexians, who are helping to organise the folk festival, have their way it could be the last time Australia Day festivities are held on a special Monday public holiday.
“Spokesman Dave Gillatt said this week his club had started a nation-wide initiative by Apex to have Australia Day celebrated on January 26, the official anniversary of the day Captain Phillip founded the country as a British colony in 1788. The drive has been adopted as one of Apex’s national citizenship service projects.” (Centralian Advocate, 25/1/79.)
An Advocate “staff reporter” questioned the concert’s success this time around: “Do Australians – particularly the Alice Springs variety – care about Australia? Local patriots asked the perennial question after a conspicuously quiet Australia Day holiday on Monday.”
The review noted the Apex Club of Central Australia – Folk Club concert attracted “a good crowd of 500 people. But at least nine tenths of the participation was by the highly talented and enthusiastic members of the Folk Club.
“We were told what it has meant to be an Australian since Captain Phillip founded his country’s giant prison farm almost 200 years ago. But the feeling with which we were left was one of nostalgia for something lost rather than inspiration for the future.
“The grand spirit of the outback was lost in the second half of the show as singers reminded us of the modern dilemmas facing “Poor fellow, my country”.
“We laughed at the public service, saw how the land and seas had been scarred by mindless progress, and mourned the passing of the Aboriginal way of life.
“By the time we got round to the national anthem ‘Advance Australia Fair,’ there wasn’t much to celebrate.” (Advocate, 1/2/79).
The dispiritedness continued: “A call by 8HA talkback host Jeff Huddlestone on the subject of how Australia Day should be celebrated provoked a total response of nil phone calls.
“The general apathy about the subject has moved Central Australian Apex man Dave Gillatt to once again push the idea of holding the actual holiday on January 26. In this way, say Dave and his supporters, Australia Day would be special, like Anzac Day – not just another opportunity for an extended booze-up in natural surroundings.” (Advocate, 1/2/79).
2604 Alex Australia Day 2 Bloodwood OKThough local enthusiasm seemed to have dimmed, yet there was movement afoot – for one thing, the dominant Folk Society performers (Evans, Barford, Balfour and Foran) founded their new band “Bloodwood” (pictured) which became a fixture of the Alice Springs music scene throughout the 1980s.
But it was on the Federal scene that a major step forward occurred, when during 1979 the Fraser Government established a National Australia Day Committee in Canberra to oversee future nation-wide celebrations of the national day, later to become the National Australia Day Council.
This new organisation took over the role of the Federal Australia Day Council which from 1946 had been responsible for the promotion and public education of the significance of Australia Day.
Notwithstanding the three decades this body had been in existence, it wasn’t until Apex had resolved from April 1977 onwards to push for greater recognition of Australia’s national day – from an initiative begun in Alice Springs – that this objective gained real impetus.
Each state and territory established its own Australia Day councils, with many Australia Day committees established in towns and cities.
2604 Alex Australia Day 1 Ted Robertson OKIt appears there was a hiatus in Australia Day activities in Alice Springs in 1980; the notable exception being a column by NT Labor Senator Ted Robertson (pictured) who became prominent in his support of Australia Day in the early 1980s.
In 1981 there was more publicity; and in this year the date of January 26 fell on a Monday. Once again a free outdoor concert was scheduled for outside of the Commonwealth Centre in Parsons Street but was hastily relocated indoors at the Alice Springs High School (now Centralian Middle School) when wet weather threatened.
This time the concert program featured a much wider range of performances reflecting the ethnic diversity of the town. It was also the time when the slogan “One nation, one future” first came into use.
By this time responsibility for functions was taken by the Alice Springs Australia Day Committee, and the two Apex clubs in the town were part of numerous sponsors for the events.
However, the Apex Club of Central Australia wasn’t completely dealt out of the equation, for in 1982 this group coordinated the inaugural Centralian of the Year award with the Australia Day Council. The first winner was Mrs Joan Higgins, the director of the Alice Springs Youth Centre.
2604 Alex Australia Day 5 Everingham OKIt was also in 1982 that promotion of Australia Day increased significantly; for example, for the first time a two-page feature was published in Alice Springs including statements by Administrator Eric Johnston (also patron of the Northern Territory Australia Day Council), Mayor George Smith, and Chief Minister Paul Everingham.
Much the same occurred again for 1983, with the date this year occurring on a Wednesday. In Alice Springs the first protest occurred, when a number of Aboriginal people and supporters gathered on the town council lawns and hoisted the Aboriginal flag in defiance of a council ruling.
It was also the day that the NT Government made an announcement: “Chief Minister Paul Everingham said no matter what the rest of Australia may decide, Territorians will next year have the Australia Day holiday on January 26.
“Let’s hope it won’t be too long before the rest of Australia gets into line,” he said.
“In his Australia Day message, Mr Everingham said many people saw the day as just another long weekend and if that’s all there was to it, ‘we might as well spend the day doing something about productivity at work’
“While Australians were fiercely patriotic about sport they seemed far less enthusiastic about their national day.
“That’s probably no wonder considering past disputes between state and Commonwealth governments about which date is officially Australia day and how it should be celebrated,” he said.
“Mr Everingham’s statement was backed by Federal Member Grant Tambling and NT Labor Senator Ted Robertson.” (Centralian Advocate, 28/1/83.)
And so it was that in 1984 the Northern Territory became the first jurisdiction in the country to secure the Australia Day public holiday on the date of January 26, irrespective of the day of the week it occurred. The rest of Australia “got into line” a full decade later.
But there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Paul Everingham was once an active member of the Apex Club of Alice Springs (the original club in town) and its president in 1971-72.
It was in 1972 that the Apex Club of Central Australia first began. It was Everingham who suggested Alice Springs should host the National Apex Convention which occurred in 1974, bringing 1200 interstate visitors to town (population then just over 13,000).
It’s also relevant to note (I think) the context of the times when Alice Springs and the NT were so prominent in the cause of promoting Australia Day.
It was in the heady days of transfer of Commonwealth control to the Territory when self-government commenced; and the NT was awash with Commonwealth money that aided an enormous development boom.
Even in the early 1980s when Australia fell into recession, the Territory continued to steam ahead and there was an abundance of optimism.
This situation still applied in January 1983 when Everingham declared the NT would lead the nation by affixing the Australia Day public holiday to January 26.
Soon afterwards, the wheels began to fall off the cart when the Fraser Government lost office in early March 1983, and there began a new dawn of reality as the Hawke Labor Government asserted its own policy decisions against the wishes of the NT CLP Government.
In early December 1983 the CLP won 19 seats out of the expanded 25 seat Legislative Assembly but this further entrenched the opposing positions of the Hawke and Everingham governments.
On January 26, 1984, the Northern Territory became the first jurisdiction in Australia to observe the Australia Day public holiday on a Thursday and thereafter on every other day of the week in succeeding years – but by then the days of good fortune that had been smiling in the early days of self-government was drawing to an end.
[DECLARATION OF INTEREST:  Beginning in 1975, during the period referred to in this report I was a reporter, chief reporter and occasionally acting editor of the Centralian Advocate, and for some time a member of the Apex Club of Alice Springs. ERWIN CHLANDA, editor of the Alice Springs News Online.]


  1. Fit as well for Northern Territory to lead promotion to replace 26 January with 1 January which is anniversary the establishment of our Commonwealth of Australia.
    IMHO requirement we would need to ensure NO ceremonies before noon to ensure all recover from their New Year celebrations in time to attend.

  2. January 1 as Australia Day seems problematical for obvious reasons.
    January 26 has become perhaps too controversial to be kept as Australia Day.
    So why not consider the last Monday in January?

  3. Alex, thank you for the complete history of the beginnings of the celebration we now call Australia Day.
    As previous chairman of both the APEX Club of Central Australia and the Alice Springs Australia Day Council, it is wonderful that you have given people a well researched understand the significant role our town and some of its citizens played in developing our National day.
    Something factual as opposed to some of the misinformation you see on face book and other social media. During the time of my involvement (1998-2000) the theme was “Celebrate What’s Great!”
    The Day was marked with the Australia Day Ball, a formal event that was always fully booked, with the highlight being the awarding of the Central Australian and Young Central Australian of the Year.
    The APEX Club of Central Australia is still a very active club, and for anybody new to town looking to meet people and get involved in helping the community, joining APEX is a terrific way to do it.

  4. Call it self-flagellation if you must, but for many of us we cannot celebrate on this date.
    If you read the details of what actually happened in 1788 anyway it was not the most significant.

  5. A national day is a designated date on which celebrations mark the nationhood of a nation or non-sovereign country. Our nation was legally born on 9 July 1900 when Queen Victoria signed the Australian Constitution Act.

  6. I have always believed that Terry McCumeski (not sure if his name is spelt thus) had a lot to do with the Australia Day thing and was the instigator in Apex so doing.

  7. @ Colin Saunders (Posted January 28, 2019 at 10:02 am): That would be correct, Colin, as Terry McCumiskey was the chairman of the Apex Club of Central Australia for 1979-80.
    He would have played a significant role. It would be really useful for former members of the Apex clubs during that period to fill in the gaps of information.
    If one goes to the Facebook page of this club, we are informed that it was founded in 1979 which clearly is incorrect.

  8. @ Evelyn. The Australia Day celebrations that we celebrate today first began in 1818, when it was called Fist Landing Day, or Foundation day. The recommendation from Matthew Flinders that the country be called Australia was only accepted a year before that.
    During the Centenary in 1888, leaders from around Australia and new Zeland gathered in Sydney to celebrate what was then changed to Anniversary Day. The Federal Australia Day Council began in 1946 until replaced by the National Australia Day Council in 1984.
    So while July 9, 1900 is an important milestone in our history, it does not reflect the day of our beginnings, or in effect our birthday. Whilst Aboriginal history goes back thousands of years before European settlement, Australia’s history really began when first claimed by Philip on the shores of Port Jackson, on January 26, 1788.
    The many events that occurred subsequently, whilst important, do not tell the story from the beginning.

  9. @ Local 1: you wrote :”Australia’s history really began when first claimed by Philip on the shores of Port Jackson, on January 26, 1788″.
    I am a bit confused as I always believe, that is perhaps because of my French history, that Britain Lieutenant James Cook, captain of HMB Endeavour, claimed the eastern portion of the Australian continent for the British Crown in 1770, naming it New South Wales seeking to pre-empt the French colonial empire from expanding into the region.
    Louis Antoine de Bougainville 1768 approached the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of North Queensland but was turned away by the surf.
    You have to be thankful to the surf because without it you will be French and the 14th of July not the 9th would be our national day.
    Britain chose Australia as the site of a penal colony.
    But until Queen Victoria gave us our freedom, we were not a nation but a colony.
    In my opinion, it is very strange and sad that we celebrate the landing of criminals and prostitutes as our beginning.
    Many convicts were left struggling with unemployment, personal relationships, and alcoholism, and drifted through both life and the colony.
    Many re-offended for decades after they were freed in Australia, but only committed low-level nuisance and public order offenses – mainly drunkenness and vagrancy – rather than the more serious crimes for which they were initially transported.

  10. @ Evelyne Roullet (Posted January 30, 2019 at 2:11 pm): No, Captain James Cook claimed Australia’s east COASTLINE of that portion from Point Hicks (east Victoria) which was first sighted by the Endeavour’s Second-In-Command, Zachary Hicks, on April 19, 1770, north to Possession Island at the tip of Cape York Peninsula, where Cook formally took possession on August 22, 1770.
    This is what Cook wrote: “Having satisfied myself of the great probability of a passage, through which I intend going with the ship, and therefore may land no more upon the eastern coast of New Holland, and on the western side I can make no new discovery, the honor of which belongs to the Dutch navigators; but the eastern coast from the latitude of 38 degrees south down to this place, I am confident, was never seen or visited by any European before us, and notwithstanding I had in the name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English colors and, in the name of His Majesty, King George the Third, took possession of the whole eastern coast from the above latitude down to this place by the name of New South Wales together with all the bays, harbors, rivers and islands situated upon the said coast …”
    The claim for the eastern half of the continent as New South Wales was declared in August 1786 when Captain Arthur Phillip was commissioned to command the First Fleet.
    The British avoided the western half of “New Holland” to avoid upsetting the Dutch; however, it’s a little known fact that the French took possession of the west coast some time later but never followed through on it.
    The British in turn simply gazumped the French when the Swan River Colony was established, later called Perth.
    For better or worse, January 26, 1788, was the pivotal moment in Australian history when Captain Arthur Phillip hoisted the British flag at Sydney Cove, officially marking the commencement of the new colony.
    As mentioned in another comment, Arthur Phillip was well aware of the consequences of this new settlement when he later wrote: “Yultide is almost upon us and my hope is by no means exhausted despite the difficulties met with; given time, and additional force, together with proper people for cultivating the land … I know now that I can make a nation.”

  11. @ Alex: I think that unless we sit with all our different sources, we will never agree on this point, as even our government states that Cook claimed Australia.

  12. @ Evelyne Roullet (Posted January 31, 2019 at 5:28 pm): The link you provide from the National Museum of Australia states exactly what I’ve said. Under the heading “Cook claims Australia” at the top of the page it states “1770: Lieutenant James Cook claims EAST COAST of Australia for Britain.” (My emphasis).
    Scroll down to the section headed “Claiming New South Wales for the Crown” it reiterates: “Five days later, finally clear of the labyrinth of reefs and having proved the existence of the Torres Strait, Cook climbed the summit of Possession Island and claimed the EAST COAST of the Australian continent for Britain.”
    It’s pertinent to note that Cook’s assessment of the land was bleak and saw no reason for any European settlement to be established; however, Joseph Banks, the botanist on board the Endeavour, was hugely enthusiastic about “New South Wales” and it was he who eventually succeeded in convincing Britain to send the First Fleet.
    The reason there is so much confusion about this period of history is due to the sustained movement in the mid to late 19th century to end convict transportation to Australia.
    This became one of the most successful media propaganda campaigns in history; so much so, that Australians universally became terribly ashamed of their convict origins and suppressed all reference to it.
    Australia Day (January 26) had its origins in the early 19th century – references to this date commence as early as 1804 – and was originally known as “Foundation Day” or “First Landing Day.”
    This occasion was especially significant for emancipists – former convicts who had served their sentences or been pardoned by the governor – but this history was forgotten because of its strong association with the convict era.
    Another major consequence was the downplaying of the First Fleet and misleading transfer of focus on the voyage of the Endeavour as the beginning of British occupation of Australia.
    If it wasn’t for Joseph Banks and the loss of the British colonies in the American Revolutionary War, the voyage of the Endeavour would have been only a footnote in history.


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