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Can Reconciliation Lead to a New Australia Day? Merri-bek council believes so

ByDechlan Brennan

The Author

Dechlan Brennan is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He has been featured in The Saturday Paper, Vice, Crikey and is a columnist for The Diplomat.

Another local council in Victoria has decided not to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day. As of December 7, Merri-bek Council has joined Yarra and Darebin in changing the event date, and at least four other councils are thinking of following suit in 2024. Although it may not be immediately apparent to some, such changes strike at the heart of the reconciliation debate and point towards its growing importance in mainstream politics in Australia.

Encompassing the inner north suburbs of Brunswick, Coburg and Fawkner, the Greens-led Merri-bek council voted to accept a recommendation from its First Nations advisory committee to stop holding the ceremonies on January 26.  

Mayor of Merri-bek, Cr Angelica Panopoulos, told Umbrella “As many people recognise, the current date is a painful reminder of the deep loss and trauma inflicted on First Nations people as a result of colonisation.” 

“We are guided by our Statement of Commitment to Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung People and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities of the City of Merri-bek.”

Support for the move has come from the First People’s Assembly of Victoria. Speaking to Umbrella, co-chair of the Assembly, Bangerang and Wiradjuri Elder Aunty Geraldine Atkinson congratulated Merri-bek Council on their stance, “we welcome the changes made by local councils who are showing leadership in the spirit of true reconciliation.”

Bangerang and Wiradjuri Elder and Co-Chair of the First People's Assembly of Victoria, Aunty Geraldine Atkinson looks out to the camera. She is wearing a shawl made of fur, smiling and holding a wooden object.
Bangerang and Wiradjuri Elder and Co-Chair of the First People’s Assembly of Victoria, Aunty Geraldine Atkinson supports Merri-bek Council’s decision. (Source: Aunty Geraldine Atkinson)

“It is difficult to find cause for celebration on a day that marks my peoples’ ongoing dispossession.”

“If we want to get on with creating a better future together as equals, then listening to Aboriginal people and understanding the trauma around January 26 should motivate everyone to find a different date to celebrate together.” 

She noted that a National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) public holiday (observed over a week, from the first Sunday in July) would be an appropriate day to bring all Australians together. 

“We’ve got the oldest living culture in the world right here; we want to share and celebrate that with everyone.”

More conservative sectors of Australian society diametrically oppose changes to the dates of citizenship ceremonies. Rita Panahi, who was urged to run for Liberal preselection and who hosts Outsiders on the right-wing cable network Sky News, labelled Merri-bek a “clown council. It is a determined effort to degrade and demoralise our country.” 

Indeed, back in 2017, the refusal to recognise Australia Day by Darebin and Yarra Councils – and not hold citizenship ceremonies on these days- was seen as an attack on ‘Australian values’ by Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Subsequently, he stripped both these councils of the ability to hold citizenship festivals at any time of the year. Two years later, another Liberal Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, followed up on this policy that legally bound all local councils to only hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day. 

Opposition to the councils’ stance at the time extended to Labor premier Daniel Andrews and then federal Labor leader Bill Shorten. After gaining power in this year’s Federal elections with a new leader, however, the ALP has reversed the previous government’s policy and its own previous leader’s statements. 

In what he describes as a ‘pragmatic move’, Labor Immigration Minister Andrew Giles has sought a both-ways approach. So while he has urged councils across the country to hold ceremonies on Australia Day, he has also allowed them to choose any of the three days prior to or following Australia Day (January 23rd – 29th).

The photo displays a busy intersection on Sydney Rd, Brunswick. The sky is blue and there are lots of shopfronts, with powerlines above.
Some have labelled Merri-bek a “clown council” after the council’s decision to scrap Australian citizenship ceremonies on the 26th of January. (Photo: Adam Calaitzis)

The result is that Yarra and Darebin Councils can now hold citizenship ceremonies for the first time in five years, albeit within the period specified by the minister. However, it remains to be seen whether all parties will be satisfied by this strategy.

For federal opposition immigration minister and citizenship spokesperson Dan Tehan, the new policy is simply bowing to pressure from local councils, “Make no mistake; this is Labor laying the groundwork to abolish January 26 as Australia Day.” 

Others have applauded the decision. Australian Local Government Association president Linda Scott, a City of Sydney councillor and member of the Labor Party, welcomed the government’s decision, noting that “common sense has prevailed.” 

First People’s Assembly of Victoria co-chair Marcus Stewart, a Nira illim bulluk man of the Taungurung Nation who is married to Labor senator Jana Stewart, applauded the decision, saying it was “good to see those punitive measures scrapped. Scott Morrison tried to whip councils into line with his outdated worldview by punishing councils that chose to take a stand in solidarity with First Peoples,” Stewart said.

Now that there is no risk of losing their Australia Day citizenship ceremony, more councils seem willing to also change the date of their celebration. 

The City of Greater Geelong, Shepparton, Whittlesea and Surf Coast Shire are among those that are open to reconsidering their plans for 2024. Several more, including Port Phillip, already observe a Mourning Reflection ceremony out of respect for First Nations people on Australia Day. 

Merri-bek Council mayor, Angelica Panoupolos wears a beige shirt and a blue medal in front of a sign that reads 'Welcome to Merri-bek'
Merri-bek mayor Angelica Panopoulous. (Source: Angelica Panopoulos)

For her part, Merri-bek mayor Angelica Panopoulos just wants councils to be able offered some flexibility around their citizenship ceremonies. She told Umbrella, “We would love to continue holding citizenship ceremonies on other dates throughout the year. Citizenship ceremonies are important milestones for many of our residents. We are proud of our diverse community; we want to celebrate with them.”

Shifting the date of citizenship ceremonies has an impact that goes far beyond the three councils in inner Melbourne that have implemented the change. Aunty Geraldine Atkinson is clear on its significance and the celebration of Australia Day in general.

“What we choose, as a society, to prioritise and celebrate says a lot about who we are and who we want to be,” she told Umbrella.

“So sure, there may be more important problems that also need fixing, but symbolic things matter, because they send a message to people like me. Currently, by celebrating January 26, the message is we don’t value or respect your culture.”



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