Last week the City of Moreland became the third Victorian council to cancel their Australia Day celebrations. The City of Moreland follows on From the City of Yarra and my former council the City of Darebin in what appears to be a string of councils set to cancel their Australia Day celebrations. When councils do this it actually hurts their citizens.
I do not want to whitewash history, and I can acknowledge the suffering that some Indigenous Australians feel about this day. I also can understand the argument that January 26 may not be the most convenient date to celebrate our national day.
My personal opinion is that I do not support changing the date of Australia day, as presently there is no clear alternative date in the calendar. The absence of such a date makes arguments to change the date problematic.
This is not my main reason for writing this article. I do not believe that local governments should be engaged in such activities and I do not believe that most residents want local councils involved in such activities. As a councillor at the City of Darebin, I was contacted by residents about a range of issues; these included fixing local roads, inadequate parking facilities, people urging council to upgrade community recreation facilities and people who were concerned about overdevelopment. However I can unequivocally tell you that I was never contacted about changing the date of Australia Day, this was not one of those issues that was raised with me.
It is simply wrong for a local council to seek to do this. If the federal government wish to start a discussion with the Australian public about the date of Australia day then this should be open to discussion. I could even understand if councils wish to pass a motion encouraging the federal government to have a discussion about the date of our national holiday.
However for local councils to cancel Australia day citizenship ceremonies is fundamentally wrong, because all it serves to do is hurt new citizens of cities such as Darebin and Yarra. As a councillor, I regularly attended citizenship ceremonies, including several Australia day ceremonies. These ceremonies were always the biggest and the most popular.
Why is this? People like the notion of becoming citizens of their new home country on its national day. People also like to re-affirm their citizenship of Australia on the national day.
When councils such as Darebin, Moreland and Yarra cancel Australia Day celebrations, they don’t change the date or symbolism of Australia Day. The businesses with offices in those municipalities will still largely be closed. Businesses that are open will still be paying staff public holiday penalty rates. Indeed as Mayor Kim Le Cerf from Darebin admitted, council staff from these two councils will still not be working on Australia Day.
For a council to cancel their citizenship ceremonies on Australia day after the federal government had made its position clear, regardless of whether you believe the federal government were heavy-handed, councils who now try to take the step of cancelling their citizenship ceremonies are reckless. Because this now means that new citizens are now robbed of the important right and opportunity to do a ceremony in their local community and I believe that this is just sad for them. From the past experience, I remember how happy citizenship candidates were when they received their certificates. To be able to share in their special occasion was an honour that I will always cherish.
Indeed it’s also important to note that many Indigenous elders in the communities of Yarra, Darebin and Moreland do not support the decisions taken by their councils. Ian Hunter, an Aboriginal elder well known to all those who have been involved in the City of Darebin, says he was not consulted and did not support the decision. It is also important to note that many citizenship ceremonies include a welcome to country and a speech from an Indigenous elder which actually gives those in attendance an understanding of the indigenous heritage of the community they otherwise may not get.
By taking these actions councils are not changing the date of Australia Day, all they are doing is robbing new citizens the chance to confirm their citizenship in their local communities. Why? So mainly white councillors can politically grandstand on the moral high horse. I urge other councils considering taking this retrograde step not to do this to their new citizens.
Oliver Walsh is a former Darebin councillor and is the previous deputy mayor.
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