Following is the response by Yarra councilor Amanda Stone, to the attacks made on the inner Melbourne council by Murdoch media and the Turnbull government, for daring to move to shift naturalisation ceremonies form 26 January, a date that many Australians find is unsuitable, because it marks the British invasion of the land and dispossession of the original inhabitants and should not be celebrated as our national day. Now that the nearby City of Darebin, has voted to do the same, the issue has become more topical than ever.
This week it seems that everyone from the Prime Minister down has been happy to lash out at Yarra City Council for voting unanimously last Monday night to no longer recognise the 26th of January as an appropriate date for our national day. We did this because of the depth of feeling about what that day means for so many of our residents.
We do not believe it is the right day for our national celebration and certainly not the right day to be welcoming our newest citizens to our nation in a citizenship ceremony. This day can only commemorate the British invasion of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander lands.
Instead we will, from 2018 onwards, hold a small-scale event featuring a Smoking Ceremony on January 26 that acknowledges the loss of culture, language and identity felt by Aboriginal community.
Our decision caused a political and media storm that, I admit, we hadn’t quite anticipated. We certainly didn’t anticipate that the Commonwealth would punish us by taking away our role to performing citizenship ceremonies altogether
We made this decision not as a calculated attempt to make our mark on the national political agenda but because it matters to our community.
Even if the Victorian Local Government Act didn’t stipulate that councils should, as a key responsibility, advocate on behalf of their communities about issues of importance, we would have done this anyway.
Some in the commentariat have suggested we should butt out because there aren’t many indigenous people living in Yarra these days. As if this issue only matters to Aboriginal Australians.
Granted, rising house prices have forced many of the Aboriginal people that have lived in our suburbs for many decades to leave in recent years.
Yarra mayor Amanda Stone: ”Our decision caused a political and media storm that, I admit, we hadn’t quite anticipated.” Photo: Paul Jeffers
That, of course, is not the point.
Aboriginal Australians often talk about connection to land. Not only does the City of Yarra contain many ancient connections for the Wurundjeri people around the Yarra River itself, but our urban landscape is the birthplace of many modern Aboriginal political organisations.
Gertrude Street Fitzroy echoes with the memories of indigenous activism from the 1930s: think the Aboriginal Health Service and land rights marches. It’s also the street where the first indigenous man to win a world boxing title, Lionel Rose, helped set up a gym for young indigenous people.
When one of our greatest contemporary indigenous musicians, Dan Sultan, sings of Old Fitzroy you’re left in no doubt as to its importance for his community.
Many other Australians – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – see January 26 as a day of mourning.
For many, it is not a day for celebration but instead marks the start of the systemic extermination of their culture. They, like us, want a different day, one not redolent with tragic symbolism associated with loss and sadness but a day where we can all celebrate our nation.
This view is not the preserve of just a few “loony left inner city types” as some would conveniently and rather predictably like to portray. It’s an important democratic right to be able to express such a view, particularly when it has such support in a local community. It’s a right and a responsibility that is at the heart of local government’s remit and to suggest otherwise is simply wrong.
So what price have we paid for using the tools of our local democracy to take a stand for our people? To quote Alex Hawke the Assistant Minister of Immigration and Border Protection, his Government’s response has been “heavy handed”. You can say that again.
We consider citizenship ceremonies enormously important because they take place in the communities where our new citizens live. These ceremonies are not just perfunctory events where we hand out toy koalas to people collecting their citizenship certificates at events held across the year.
The events really mean something to everyone involved. They are often very emotional and the result of difficult journeys or hard decisions many of our new citizens make to get here.
Taking this away from us also disenfranchises those new citizens who must be wondering just how democratic Australia really is.
We sincerely hope that the Commonwealth reconsiders its decision. We are disappointed but not cowed and hope that commonsense will ultimately prevail.