Harmony Day is celebrated annually on 21 March in Australia. Harmony Day began in 1999, coinciding with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The day was introduced by the Howard Government to re-centralise a singular and unifying notion of Australian-ness within multicultural policy.
Each year, it is marked by people coming together and participating in local activities. The continuing message of Harmony Day is 'Everyone Belongs'. It is about community participation, inclusiveness, celebrating diversity, respect and belonging. The national colour for harmony day is Orange.
Communities themselves decide how they would like to come together to mark the occasion – some have morning teas, others organise a fair and some celebrate by dressing in national costumes. Since 1999, a wide variety of groups including sports organisations, community groups, local government, churches, schools and businesses have staged more than 55,000 Harmony Day events.
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Howard initially commissioned Eureka Research in 1998 to undertake an anti-racism study to "explore and understand the subtleties and nature of racism in the Australia of the late 1990s with a view to mounting an effective mass media and/or education anti-racism campaign”.
The research reached two major conclusions:
- That there was a clear need for an explicit anti-racism campaign, with 85% of respondents recognising racism as widespread and multi-faceted in Australia.
- That a focus on 'living in harmony' be promoted.
However the outcomes of the research were not aligned with Howard's views that Australians were not racist, as he later stated when commenting on the racially motivated 2005 Cronulla riots, "I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country." To avoid a focus on eliminating racism, the Howard government instead focused on the second part of the research and developed Harmony Day as a result.
The Diversity and Social Cohesion Program has two key elements: Community Grants and Harmony Day. The Diversity Cohesion Program provides funding, education and information to help organisations create a spirit of inclusiveness, and helps ensure all Australians are treated fairly regardless of their cultural background or circumstance.
Criticism of Harmony Day has focused on the multi-cultural aspect of the day and the shift in focus away from anti-racism.
Shift in focus from anti-racism
Emeritus Professor Andrew Jakubowicz was critical of the extended governmental suppression of the original Eureka research for 13 years, and the subsequent lack of research or focus on attempts to eliminate racism.
IndigenousX CEO and founder Luke Pearson has argued that the introduction of Harmony Day was an effort to find
- "a warm and positive way of not actually doing anything about the issue of racial discrimination in an increasingly multicultural society."
Anti-racism groups have highlighted media coverage at the time Harmony Day was introduced that proposed the Australian government was not doing enough to eliminate racism. Not-for-profit group All Together Now have questioned why Harmony Day was needed at all if there was no racism in Australia, describing the creation of the day as "Orwellian".
The Secretary for the New South Wales Fabians, a left-wing thinktank, argued that
- "calling it Harmony Day drains the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of its real meaning. Rather than focusing on tackling racism and the structural barriers that continue to exist, it is instead a self-congratulatory day about how “harmonious” we apparently are."
Commercial and technology lawyer Dan Ryan,  writing in The Australian in 2011, criticised Harmony Day, likening it to government projects in China. He said that events like Harmony Day are aimed at oppression of liberties in China, and are therefore impossible to achieve in a democratic country such as Australia.
- "The problem with the harmonious society is not just the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. The truth is, while superficially sweet-sounding, the idea is illusory and utopian. We may all wish in the abstract that everyone got along, but the reality is that free societies by their nature are cacophonous, argumentative and full of dissent."
He also said that multiculturalism was being whitewashed by the government and media.
- "If it is decided that we must restrict speech or avoid discussing certain subjects to keep the peace over an apparently combustible population, might now not be the time to ask whether this type of harmony is worth celebrating?"
Grette Toner, in an Australian Curriculum Studies Association paper titled Beyond Harmony: Rethinking Intercultural Learning for Australian Primary Schools, visited a primary school and found the day's activities to be "largely symbolic...difficult to gauge what students learned". Criticism was also aimed at the school for not involving anybody from outside of it.
- "About – Harmony week". www.harmony.gov.au.
- "Living in harmony a mixed blessing". www.theaustralian.com.au. 11 March 2011.
- Lauren. "Beyond harmony: rethinking intercultural learning for Australian primary schools" (PDF). Retrieved 10 March 2019.