Australia Day: Five Years Ago, Flinders Island Community Quietly Axed Celebrations

Remember when Fremantle council in Western Australia axed its Australia Day festivities last year and sparked a nation-wide debate?

And remember when Flinders Island council canned its January 26 celebrations back in 2013?

If the answer to that second question is “no”, it could be because the island council’s decision garnered much less attention. But the small community, located off Tasmania’s north-east coast, will soon mark its fifth year since quietly changing the date.

Deputy mayor Marc Cobham used to be responsible for organising annual Australia Day celebrations on one of the island’s many beaches.

“For me personally, I had always had an issue with the Australia Day celebration being on what many in the community refer to as Invasion Day,” he said.

“The idea of something that was an alternative sat well with me. That helped me to have the motivation to be part of a group that suggested a change.”

Aboriginal people make up more than 16 per cent of the Flinders Island community. When the council made the decision to scrap its traditional beach event, Mr Cobham said the community response was mixed.

“There were some fairly — I guess you could say — vehement letters in the local island newspaper,” he said.

“But for those of us that felt that it was time to make a change, that only gave us more motivation.”

Around the same time the council decided to make that change, local musician and artist Sandro Donati and his wife Judy were curating an exhibition on the history of music and dance on the Furneaux Islands which included a strong Aboriginal component.

The council joined with the artists to morph their event into a community celebration that would serve as an alternative to events previously held on Australia Day.

Mr Donati said the inaugural Furneaux Islands Festival included live music and a free barbecue, but no events on January 26.

“Some people felt miffed, but they weren’t many. It was a huge success.”

Following the success of the first Furneaux Islands Festival, the Flinders Island Aboriginal Association Incorporated (FIAAI) partnered with the council to make it an annual event held over three days in January.

FIAAI CEO Maxine Roughley said the Flinders Island Aboriginal community viewed Australia Day as a time for reflection, not celebration.

“For Flinders Island Aboriginal people, that day means we lost a lot of our culture and a lot of our language which we are only just getting back. Now we are just thankful that we are able to celebrate as a community.”

Ms Roughley said the island community had shown leadership.

“You hear about other states now talking about not celebrating Australia Day, well we were the leaders in that,” she said.

“We didn’t really get much publicity or go out there and try and get much publicity, we were too busy celebrating. And each year that festival is just getting bigger and bigger.

“So if anyone in Australia wants us to tell them how you can work together, this community can do it.”

Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell said Flinders Island was an example of how communities could overcome the darkest of histories.

In the 1830s, mainland Aboriginal Tasmanians were exiled to a settlement site on Flinders Island called Wybalenna.

More than 100 Aboriginal people were sent to Wybalenna but most died while waiting to return to their traditional country.

Mr Mansell said the Flinders Island council’s decision to shift Australia Day celebrations was an “inclusive” move.

“They (the council) believe Flinders is made up of a range of people from various backgrounds, so why should you have a celebration that isolates one group?” Mr Mansell said.

“This idea has been such a positive thing, I think the rest of Australia should follow.”

While the council does not hold festivities on January 26, it has consistently said people in the community are free to celebrate the day however they like.

In recent years the Flinders Island Sports and RSL Club has hosted an Australia Day event.

Club president Chris Fenner said it was usually a family fun day that included sports games and a barbecue.

“The turnout has been great and we would like to support whatever happens on that day,” he said. “I think it is up to the individual (if they want to celebrate on Australia Day).

“Some people obviously feel that day is not something they would like to celebrate and obviously there are people that feel that is the day. The community should cater for everybody.

“I really think it is not council’s decision to officially change a day. I think it is probably a good thing that Flinders council has done to offer an alternative, but I think it is more of a federal issue than it is for a local council.”

The fifth Furneaux Island Festival will kick off on Friday January 19.

This year’s program will include an acoustic supper, a festival market day, a range of musical acts and guest chefs.