Statues of James Cook and Queen Victoria, celebrating the British colonial past in Australia, were damaged on Thursday January 25 in Melbourne, on the eve of the national holiday, which has divided the country for several years. A statue of the British explorer was pulled down, cut at the shins, and its base covered with the words: “The colony will fall.” Another statue, representing Queen Victoria, who ruled the British Empire, was daubed with red paint.

“This type of vandalism has no place in our community,” responded Victoria State Premier Jacinta Allan.

The national holiday, “Australia Day”, takes place every year on January 26. It’s a public holiday and, for most Australians, it’s often a time for a barbecue or an outing. But the date, which commemorates the arrival of European settlers in Sydney Harbor in 1788, has become increasingly controversial, leading to heated debates. Some even renamed it “Invasion Day.”

Rejection of a reform of Aboriginal rights

If activists want colonial figures to be celebrated, others denounce the commemoration of abuses against the Aborigines and a cultural genocide. A majority of Australians want to keep the public holiday, or even the name, but are more divided on the date, according to polls.

Champion cricketer Pat Cummins, one of the country’s most popular sporting figures, opined this week that “we have to have a national holiday, but we can probably find a more appropriate day to celebrate it.”

In October, Australians rejected by referendum a reform of Aboriginal rights which proposed to recognize in the Constitution this minority as being the first inhabitants of the island-continent and to give it a “voice”. This was to advise the legislative and executive authorities on all matters concerning them in order to enable the development of more effective policies. His opinion would only have been advisory. Aboriginal people make up less than 4% of Australia’s 26 million people.

While, at the time of colonization, the British Empire had reached agreements with most indigenous peoples, this was not the case in Australia, which it considered terra nullius, land belonging to no one . The Aborigines, decimated by diseases brought by settlers and massacres, then objects of assimilation policies which notably allowed the removal of children from their parents until the 1970s, are still victims of glaring inequalities with a hope life of eight years lower than the national average, higher rates of incarceration and suicide and more difficult access to education, employment and health services.