Organisers of a campaign supporting ‘boat-people’ have been forced to change the date from Australia Day due to potential offence caused to indigenous Australians.
In response to concerns about its timing, ‘National Boat Day’ has been re-scheduled for 27 January as a “day of boat therapy” encouraging Australians to reflect on the treatment of asylum seekers.
Founder and campaign manager, Michael Roper, said that although no offence was intended, it was “naïve” to hold the event to coincide with Australia Day celebrations.
He said there was “something darkly ironic in rejecting boat people” given the context of Australia’s white colonial history, but the message became “problematic” and easily confused.
But refugee advocates have criticised the organiser for insensitivity towards indigenous Australians.
In an email sent to refugee advocates, Liz Thompson said she hoped the organiser of the event “has now learned something”.
People may imagine “gallivanting around in boats on Invasion Day might be harmless fun for a good cause,” she wrote, but it is “an epic fail”.
“It matters when ‘well-intentioned’ people spit on the grief and inter-generational trauma of those Indigenous people.”
Mr Roper said that he consulted members of the indigenous community including elder, Barbara Williams Weston, who supported the event “once she understood” the reasons for holding it on Australia Day.
Barbara Williams Weston has been contacted for comment.
National Boat Day billed itself as “an opportunity for Australians to confront their fear of boats”.
“Inflatables, tinnies, dinghies, sail-boats, ocean-liners” were “all welcome on Boat Day” said the website.
Mr Roper said that encouraging people to “beach their boats” was an appeal to “middle Australians” who may be alienated by protests and rallies about asylum seekers.
The campaign is in its first year and has received support from Pamela Curr, campaign coordinator at the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, and Daniel Webb from the Human Rights Law Centre. Julian Burnside QC also tweeted his support for the event.