On Tuesday night, the Melbourne council of Yarra City voted to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on January 26, and will no longer refer to that date as "Australia Day". The changes were to come into effect from next year onwards. In response, the Federal Government has moved to strip the Council of its citizenship powers altogether. During Tuesday's vote, councillors unanimously agreed that January 26 was an inappropriate day to host celebrations and citizenship ceremonies, because it not inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who became dispossessed of their land in 1788. As the #changethedate campaign has made clear, January 26 is acknowledged by many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as "Invasion Day" rather than Australia Day. In making its decision, the Council surveyed nearly 300 people and said the results showed strong support to re-think Australia Day. Yarra Councillor Mi-Lin Chen Yi Mei, who brought the motion forward, told fellow councillors that changing the date provided an opportunity "to engage with the community and to educate them on Indigenous affairs." The Council went further than simply refusing to host citizenship ceremonies on January 26. They also voted to host a "small-scale, culturally-sensitive event featuring a smoking ceremony that acknowledges the loss of culture, language and identity felt by Aboriginal community on January 26" and to strategise a "communications plan that focuses on broader community education to help people better understand Aboriginal community experiences of January 26". Additionally, the Council will officially support the #changethedate campaign in council publications and on social media—which effectively means they'll be lobbying the Federal Government to legislate a new day of national celebration. The Federal Government isn't happy. Its leader Malcolm Turnbull, who is definitely not trying to deflect attention from his other problems, had some stern words to offer in this statement released on Wednesday morning: "On Australia Day, we celebrate what's great about our wonderful nation. An attack on Australia Day is a repudiation of the values the day celebrates: freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity.
The council is using a day that should unite Australians to divide Australians.
I recognise Australia Day, and its history, is complex for many Indigenous Australians but the overwhelming majority of Australians believe the 26th of January is the day and should remain our national day.
The citizenship ceremonies around Australia are all about inclusion. We begin with a welcome to country and an acknowledgment of country, and we celebrate our multicultural nation; we celebrate the oldest continuous human culture on earth, of our First Australians, just as we celebrate the youngest baby in the newest citizen's arms.
Any local council that breaches its duties under the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code can have its authorisation to conduct citizenship ceremonies revoked." The Mayor of Yarra City, Amanda Stone, didn't seem too bothered by Turnbull's threats. "The code actually says you shouldn't use a ceremony to promote a political agenda or a religious agenda or commercial agenda," she told the AAP. "We wouldn't be intending to do that." But on Wednesday afternoon, the Federal Government made good of its threats. Assistant Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke moved to strip the City of Yarra of its powers to hold citizenship ceremonies altogether.
"We are committed to ensuring that citizenship is treated in the 'non-commercial, apolitical, bipartisan and secular manner' which the Code mandates," he said in a statement.
"The instrument I have signed today means there will be no more citizenship ceremonies conducted by the City of Yarra on behalf of the Government."
In 2016, the City of Fremantle in Western Australia was also met with strong criticism for its decision to hold a multicultural national celebration on January 28 instead of January 26.
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