SYDNEY (AP) — Thousands of protesters marred celebrations of Australia's national day on Thursday by cranking up pressure on the government to acknowledge indigenous suffering by shifting the date.
Australia Day celebrates the arrival of the first British colonists in Sydney Harbor on Jan. 26, 1788. The British never acknowledged the land was owned by the Aborigines and the lack of any treaty has long been a source of division.
Thousands of protesters took part in largely peaceful "Invasion Day" rallies in the cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane while hundreds staged a sit-in outside Parliament House in the national capital, Canberra.
Ian Macfarlane, a former minister in Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull's government who retired from politics last year, became a rare conservative voice to call for the date to be changed.
He suggested Australia's national day commemorate March 1, 1901. On that date, a newly created Australian federal government took over many of the functions of the six British colonies that preceded it.
"It's about healing a wound, drawing a line, getting on with the really important issues facing our indigenous communities," Macfarlane said in a speech in Melbourne.
Turnbull ruled out a change of date. His deputy Barnaby Joyce described the debate as "political correctness gone mad" and accused Australia Day opponents of trying to make the nation feel guilty.
"They're just miserable ... and I wish they'd crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit," Joyce told Sydney Radio 2GB.
New South Wales Gov. David Hurley, the ceremonial head of Australia's most populous state, used his Australian Day speech to salute the resilience of indigenous Australians.
"We understand on this day 229 years ago the coming of the First Fleet wreaked a terrible impact on your people, your families, your culture," he said.
Aborigines account for fewer than 3 percent of Australia's population of 24 million. They are the poorest ethnic group in Australia and are more likely to be jobless, imprisoned and have poor health than any other Australians.