A still from the 'Story of Australia' ad campaign (Image: Supplied)

The Morrison government has more than tripled the amount of funding it allocates to the National Australia Day Council over the past financial year. Most of this additional funding has gone to creating an ad campaign, ‘Story of Australia’, which promotes January 26 as a “day for all Australians”.

The council received a total of $14.6 million from the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2019-20 — a rise of more than $10 million from the previous year.

Most of that funding went to the $10 million ad campaign as part of a review of the Australia Day Council’s communications. The council would not say how much additional funding it’s stumping up to continue the campaign this year.

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Debate intensifies

The spending hike comes despite decades of pressure on the government to recognise January 26 as a day of mourning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Last week the prime minister provoked controversy on the issue by proclaiming January 26 “wasn’t a particularly flash day” for the First Fleet either. The comments were in response to Cricket Australia announcing it would drop references to Australia Day in promotional material for Big Bash League games, and were widely criticised, including by Olympic gold medal winner and prominent Indigenous rights campaigner Cathy Freeman.

While an Ipsos poll for The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and Nine News survey shows 28% of Australians support “changing the date”, there is a clear generational divide, with support to abolish the celebration higher among younger people.

Cricket Australia has stood by its decision over the weekend, with Australia’s only Indigenous male test player, Jason Gillespie, adding his voice to a chorus of support for the change. And the ABC has also been drawn into the debate, issuing a statement on its use of the term “Australia Day”.

More spin

Indigenous activist Meriki Onus told Crikey the “Story of Australia” campaign, which first aired last year, is white nationalist propaganda and more evidence of the government turning to marketing to solve problems.

“There are so many more important things to worry about than spending $10 million celebrating a day that didn’t even exist in the ‘90s,” she said.

She said the ad campaign was not about inclusivity and instead risked fueling the kind of division seen in the US.

“The policies that they have against Aboriginal people in Australia and refugees and the racism and discrimination that we experience every day is very much linked to the Australia Day campaign,” she said.

“It’s white nationalism and given what happened in Washington you’ve really got to be careful about what white nationalism turns into.”

Dee Madigan, creative director of ad agency Campaign Edge, said the ad was a cynical attempt to sway opinions about the day and risked dividing people further.

“The ad ends by saying we need to listen to each other but the government is not listening to Indigenous voices who are saying change the date,” she said.

“If there’s one criticism that keeps coming about this government it’s that they’re all spin no substance. This plays into that.”

“If the government were really serious about bringing people together then decisions like [awarding] Margaret Court [an Australia Day honour] wouldn’t happen.”

The minister responsible for overseeing the funding, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ben Morton, said the government would continue to fund the campaign.

“The National Australia Day Council’s primary role is to promote Australia Day to all Australians, to inspire national pride and increase participation and engagement amongst all Australians,” he said.

“The government unashamedly supports this.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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