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Australia Day: Why silence isn’t enough

31 January 2022 at 3:51 pm
Richenda Vermeulen
The tide has shifted away from celebrating “Australia Day”. But it has largely shifted to pretending it doesn’t exist. Is the right approach saying nothing? Well, that depends, writes Richenda Vermeulen from ntegrity.

Richenda Vermeulen | 31 January 2022 at 3:51 pm


Australia Day: Why silence isn’t enough
31 January 2022 at 3:51 pm

The tide has shifted away from celebrating “Australia Day”. But it has largely shifted to pretending it doesn’t exist. Is the right approach saying nothing? Well, that depends, writes Richenda Vermeulen from ntegrity.

Four years ago, I wrote an op-ed urging brands to think twice before celebrating Australia Day. It was… not well received by everyone. 

It was still pretty mainstream for brands to wish customers a “happy Australia Day” every 26 January, or to plug a big Australia Day sale. A growing number had started quietly opting out, as more of us came to recognise the problems with celebrating a day that marks the beginning of dispossession, violence and oppression of Indigenous people. 

But in large part, it was business as usual in 2018.

It was also business as usual in the comment section of my article. One person said I should “stick to [my] knitting”. Another suggested I move to Venezuela. According to one comment, clearly giving me more credit than I deserve, I’m “the kind of person who cause[s] civil wars”.

And then there was this comment, which arguably came closer to nailing the real issue:

“If she was involved in mass market brands her commercial opinion may be slightly different. Imagine trying to convince Supercheap Auto, The Good Guys or BWS that they should stem their Australia Day activities!” – El Craigo, 25 Jan 2018

This jab was based on the fact that most of our clients at ntegrity are not for profit. But “El Craigo” had a point. It’s one thing for a purpose-driven firm to reconsider Australia Day. What about the country’s biggest profit-driven brands? 

Australia Day’s quiet vanishing act 

Ironically, there wasn’t a single mention of Australia Day that year from Supercheap Auto, The Good Guys, or BWS. The trend has only increased in recent years. So this year, my team decided to research what Australia’s leading brands did for 26 January. Here’s what we found:

  • None of the major retailers used “Australia Day Sale” as a promotional headliner in their advertising.
  • Of the top 100 ASX-listed companies, 99 posted nothing about Australia Day this year. 

These are not small organisations. I can assure you they didn’t forget to schedule their #AustraliaDay posts before clocking off for the public holiday. They made a choice. Australia’s biggest mass-market brands are no longer mentioning Australia Day. 

The tide has shifted. But it has largely shifted from celebrating a problematic holiday to pretending it doesn’t exist. Is the right approach saying nothing?

Well, that depends. 

Big brands and the hazards of ‘performative wokeness’

In 2020, the United States was in the throes of protests against racism and police violence. Demonstrations were held in nearly 2,500 cities. Some of the world’s biggest brands from Nike to Apple took to social media to voice their support, using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. 

Some called “performative wokeness”. And at its worst, these brands ended up taking up all the oxygen in the room, inadvertently drowning out the voices of those at the heart of the very movement they were claiming to support. 

But others accompanied their statements with real action: investing in Black-led organisations or revisiting their internal cultures and hiring practices. We need to be doing something similar here in Australia. 

No one is suggesting for brands to come out with “Invasion Day Specials” (what a horrible idea). But silence doesn’t feel like the right response either. We need to both speak up and take action. 

Oh also, before comments come flooding in (hi El Craigo) saying that it’s our job to sell stuff not change the world, remember it’s been shown that doing the right thing and taking a stance can help your bottom line. 

It’s not just what you say.

Whether brands decide to shout from the rafters or stay silent, this cannot be just a marketing tactic. It has to be something bigger. The tide is shifting on this day. Organisations have to start taking action for our staff and the cultures we want to build – whether we advertise it or not. So ask yourself the following: 

  • Do you acknowledge the land you work on? Do you know whose land you’re on? 
  • Have you invested time into learning about First Nations culture and history? Are you listening to First Nations perspectives?
  • Are you partnering with organisations that help you grow in your understanding of First Nations issues and people? (We recommend Australians Together who we’ve partnered with for seven years.)
  • Are you giving people the option to work on 26 January and take a public holiday on a different date?
  • Do you work with First Nations owned businesses/suppliers or donate to organisations addressing the issues faced by First Nations people?   

This is not a comprehensive list, it’s a starting point. These are steps we’ve taken together at ntegrity, as part of a long journey grounded in both listening and learning. I’m hopeful more brands will take them too.

The movement away from “Australia Day” isn’t a passing trend. But it’s time for silence to give way to something better.

Richenda Vermeulen  |  @RichendaG

Richenda Vermeulen is the founder and CEO of ntegrity, a modern fundraising agency that works with hundreds of Australian and global not for profits and for-purpose organisations.

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