Theo Theophanous, writing in Neos Kosmos recently, urges us to find a new date for Australia Day. He rejects January 26, 1788 as it marks British colonial settlement in Australia and the beginning of many injustices perpetrated against the indigenous people.

He embarks on a search for new date and, wisely in my view, rules out the often-proposed alternative date of Federation in 1901, as being too closely associated with the White Australia Policy.

Theo Theophanous suggests Australians of non-British background “have difficulty” relating to Australia Day because of its British colonial associations. He seems to suggest there was a restrictive immigration policy in the colonies that excluded most non-British settlers. This is not really true. Colonial immigration policy reflected the liberal spirit of the times and the great majority of new arrivals came ashore without even the need for a passport. Victoria was the first colony to move away from this open door policy when it legislated to control Chinese immigration in 1855.

Greeks, whether they were subjects of the Kingdom of Greece, Ionians, Ottomans, or of some other nationality, were free to enter the Australian colonies, and an unknown number in the thousands came here during the colonial period, many of them later returning home.

The “difficulty” with Australia Day that Theophanous discerns among non-British Australians is also seen as arising from the hardships imposed on them by the White Australia Policy and the prejudice underlying it. He mentions the experiences of a Greek Cypriot who arrived in 1926 and was forced to camp in the open, lacked provisions, was pestered by mosquitoes and oppressed by a harsh boss. Later this man moved to Orbost where he suffered from the cold.

I can feel some sympathy for this man but I think his situation might have been envied by the million or so refugees enduring in Greek shantytowns after the failed war with Turkey. They had little chance of escaping to Australia due to their poverty, and due to an immigration quota imposed in 1925 that limited the entry of Greeks to a hundred per month.

Many Greeks in Australia at this time were not suffering. They were thriving. This is suggested in a 1929 a report in the Sydney Morning Herald headed, ‘Thrifty Migrants Amass Wealth in Australia’. The article noted that 185 people applying to sponsor immigrants had declared assets totaling £247,000. This was at a time when a desirable Sydney home could be purchased for about £1,000.

How Greeks viewed Australia in this period is expressed by a 20-year-old immigrant named Vasili Comino from the island of Cerigo (Kythera), who arrived in the mid 1930s. His impressions were reported in the newspaper in Armidale NSW:

“His native country was not in a very prosperous state. It had little prospect for a young man, and a large number of his countrymen turned to Australia as a land of hope and freedom. Four young men accompanied him to Australia, and many more hoped to sail for Australia shortly.”

My maternal grandfather came to this country in 1921, and my father came as a 16 year old in 1922. Both experienced hardships and insults (my grandfather especially) but they did not blame Australia. My grandfather showed what he thought of Australia by bringing his family here in 1947, and I often heard my father say this was “a good country”. I do not know what they thought of Australia Day. In their time that day was mostly the concern of officialdom. The people preferred Empire Day and celebrated it enthusiastically on ‘Cracker Night’.

In the search to find a new date for Australia Day that “unifies the nation” Theo Theophanous suggests, March 9, 1966 when the Holt government announced it would end the White Australia policy. Or September 17, 1973 when the Whitlam Government’s Australian Citizenship Act removed racial discrimination in migrant selection.

He suggests that we should choose one of these dates “If we want to bring Australians together in celebrating a national day that represents progress in eliminating racism and establishing the nation as a great multicultural democracy.”

I doubt very much that Australians will unite around either of these dates. They deny most of our country’s history. They mark mere administrative actions that, while commendable, are unlikely to inspire much feeling. They cannot compare with an event as momentous and formative as the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove.

I suggest that in highlighting our country’s history, both good and bad, and in exciting emotions, the marking of Australia Day on January 26 is serving its purpose. We should keep it as our day for mourning what was lost by the indigenous people, and our day for remembering how modern Australia began.

Peter Prineas is a Sydney writer. His most recent book is WILD COLONIAL GREEKS published by Australian Scholarly Publishing: