Outback touch as Sydney parties, protests

Spectacular Indigenous artwork emblazoned on to the Opera House at dawn heralded the start of Australia Day in Sydney, before a touch of the outback delighted city onlookers.

The sights came amid rallies against the national holiday while others celebrated at Sydney's famous harbour.

Michael Brine, 52, a farmer from Windsor in far western Sydney, strolled down Sydney's iconic Rocks area on his 16-year-old horse wearing an Akubra hat.

Summoning an outback spirit in an urban setting, Mr Brine, who grew up on a cattle farm in Mudgee, says he has been coming to every Australia Day for the past decade - except during the pandemic restrictions.

He says he is not concerned with the changing political tide and wants to focus on how the day can unify all Australians.

Dozens of revellers, mostly children, patted the horses as Mr Brine hoisted them up for pictures.

"It's horse therapy for people when they see them. The look on their faces and the smiles - they love them," he told AAP.

"A lot of people have never seen a horse in their whole life. So we do it for a bit of fun because it's Australia Day. We come, have a laugh and make people smile."

Along with friend Michael Flanagan, 50, they transport the horses on a truck to inner Sydney suburb Marrickville from where they ride down the city's centre to the delight of onlookers.

Earlier in the day, Kamilaroi woman Rhonda Sampson's vivid artwork was projected onto the Opera House sails at dawn, as the Australian and Indigenous flags were raised in unison on top of the Harbour Bridge, in a symbol of unity, recognition and inclusion.

"I hope my artwork provides an opportunity for us to reflect on and learn about the connection Gadigal people have always had with the land and waters," Sampson said.

"This day brings up a lot of feelings and we need to reflect on that."

Thousands showed the depth of their feelings at the annual "Invasion Day" rally, as speakers called for the abolition of the national Australia Day holiday and the government's plan to install an Indigenous voice to parliament.

In the 31 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, there have been more than 500 additional deaths.

Wiradjuri woman and Greens candidate for the NSW upper house Lynda-June Coe spoke against the federal government's upcoming referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, labelling it a "fallacy".

"White Australia, this is the reckoning - 235 years and we ain't going nowhere," she told the crowd at Sydney's Belmore Park.

"They tried to wipe us out, still here. They tried to breed us out, still here. They tried to commit genocide on us, still here!

Indigenous anti-mining activist Adrian Burragubba called the government's voice plan patronising and a form of assimilation.

"This is like a paternalistic attitude, all the time, of telling us, 'We know what's best for you people and we will tell you what's right'," he said.

NSW Labor leader Chris Minns said his party would not stand in the way of changing the date of Australia Day if a national conversation could be carried out without creating division.

"It is obviously a day for many First Nations people, which is quite confronting and distressing for them," he said.

"If there's a national conversation about changing the date, my hope is that that happens with the building of a consensus."

Thunderstorms threatened to dampen festivities across greater Sydney and large parts of eastern NSW, as a southerly change created severe cells across the afternoon.